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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Impossible' chooses to whitewash history

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Ewan McGregor, Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin star in "The Impossible."

The Impossible

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

Although the term itself is only a few years old, the film industry has been cranking out "disaster porn" movies for years. The first few of note were "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno" from the early '70s -- each featuring death and destruction on a massive scale. Some recent titles that fit the bill include "Armageddon," "2012," "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow." All of these movies made a ton of money and no one took offense because they were all works of fiction.

There haven't been a lot of non-fictional "disaster porn" productions made and for good reason. In addition to not wanting to pay to be reminded of real-life tragedies, most people consider these kinds of films crass, ghoulish, insensitive, and in bad taste. All the proof one needs are the handful of movies made about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. They all tanked big time and only one of them ("United 93") was any good.

Based on the Dec. 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami, "The Impossible" will also be a commercial failure and, if early award nominations and critical reaction are any kind of indicators, an artistic bust as well. Wrong and misguided on a multitude of levels, "The Impossible" manages to do one thing very good and should be required viewing for any film student and die-hard fans of well-executed action sequences.

After 10 minutes or so of yawn-inducing preamble, the tsunami smacks the shores of Thailand with relentless, unforgiving force and for roughly a half-hour, will leave viewers slack-jawed and mesmerized. Not since the opening scene in "Saving Private Ryan" has carnage in water been this throttling and convincingly executed.

Painstakingly recreating the start of the tsunami from captured footage shot at a resort hotel on smartphones and video cameras, director Juan Antonio Bayona and his crew crafted outdoor sets and stages that are stunningly realistic while employing a bare-minimum of CGI enhancement.

No stranger to appearing in movies that demand physical and emotional extremes ("21 Grams," "Mulholland Drive," "Funny Games"), Naomi Watts (as Maria) appears in practically every frame of this extended scene and if her performance was supporting and not the lead, she would be an absolute shoe-in for an Oscar.

Also flirting with Oscar is Tom Holland as Lucas, Maria's eldest teenage son that is initially separated but soon reconnects with her during a tumultuous navigation of natural and man-made obstacles which litter the instant white-water river created by the tsunami. A bit of a brat in the opening salvo, Lucas is unwillingly thrust into a position of becoming his mother's keeper (and that of others) and his emotional/spiritual transformation is beyond impressive.

At approximately the one-hour mark -- with Maria out cold in an overstuffed hospital -- the action, if that's what you want to call it, shifts over to her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor). Along with the couples' two younger children Henry ended up in a make-shift, shanty town-flavored refugee camp/emergency center where everything slows to a crawl. Practically everyone there has been separated from loved ones and it doesn't get close to representing the true demographics of the event.

Based on the experience of a Spanish family, "The Impossible" literally whitewashes history. Of the nearly quarter million people killed by the tsunami, less than 10 percent of them were non-Asian and even fewer were Caucasian. By focusing their attention on a privileged (and fictional) WASP family from England, Bayona along with screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez (adapting the story by Maria Belon) rob the movie of any authenticity.

The big reason for this is simple: the filmmakers and the studio, fearful of losing their biggest demographic (white people) chose to treat the majority of the victims as background window dressing. As calculating and cold as this is, it also makes sense. It's unlikely that many Asians would want to see what was effectively their Sept. 11 pasted up on the silver screen. During the films' limited December release, protests groups consisting of all races and nationalities voiced vehement displeasure with the film which nearly crippled it at the box office.

What studios need to realize is that most people would prefer the ugly truth over a pretty lie -- even in the movies. (Summit)