"The Impossible" is a stunning reminder that we don't go to the movies merely to be entertained.
This film about the 2004 tsunami is one of the most shattering experiences I've had in a theater.
The flawless effects, bravura acting and incredible true-life storyline left many in the crowd squirming, fretting and audibly weeping.
This film image released by Summit Entertainment shows Tom Holland, left, and Naomi Watts in a scene from “The Impossible.” Watts was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress for her role in the film. The 85th Academy Awards will air Feb. 24 on ABC.
(AP Photo/Summit Entertainment, Jose Haro
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play parents vacationing on the Thai seashore with their three sons when the tidal wave strikes.
Their tale is based on experiences of survivor Maria Belon, who managed to locate one son in the swirling waters but was very badly injured; she had no idea whether the rest of her family had survived until much later.
Belon worked closely with the crew of the film, especially Watts, whose performance here is absolutely fearless.
Normally so lovely that she was picked to play Princess Di in a forthcoming biopic, Watts spends most of this film black and blue, gasping in agony, spattered with gashes, blood and filth.
The few glimpses of her naked body are so heart-breaking that in spite of these shots the film still manages a PG-13 rating - though the horrific gore and death could easily have justified an R.
In any case, I don't think I've ever seen an actress play pain and panic with more gut-wrenching authenticity; Watts has little chance of taking the Best Actress Oscar from Jennifer Lawrence ("Silver Linings Playbook") - but if she did, I doubt many viewers would complain.
Equally noteworthy is 16-year-old Tom Holland as Maria's oldest son, who basically becomes a man as he upholds his mother through her long ordeal.
The visuals are amazing.
The wave's initial onslaught is effective, coming to us just as it did to its victims - with virtually no warning whatsoever.
But the tsunami's aftermath is even more impressive. For one thing, Watts and Holland spent six weeks in a massive water-tank in Spain, so most of the stunt work here is genuine.
But how director J. A. Bayona and crew managed such realistic footage of the massive devastation is beyond me.
In many sweeping shots of junk-strewn vistas, you could swear you're looking at actual footage of the catastrophe that displaced nearly two million people.
Even newsreel footage never looks this sharp and detailed.
It's hard to see how the film failed to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture - especially since there was still a tenth spot open.
Honestly, "The Impossible" is like a rollercoaster ride that sometimes goes right off the rails - with no seatbelt or safety bar.
The grief, pain and fear come pouring off the screen into your lap, softened only slightly for those who know what finally did happen with Maria and her family.
But I'm not telling - you really have to see it for yourself. And bring a box of tissues.
**** (out of four)
The film is rated PG-13 for brief nudity and brutal, graphic injuries.