It's a nightmare come true! A British family of five is spending the holidays in a beach bungalow at a hotel on Khao Lak in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits. This is based on the true story of their harrowing experience -- and it's not for the squeamish.

British businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor), his doctor wife Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three sons are celebrating the Christmas holiday, frolicking on an island in a tropical paradise. But on the morning of Dec. 26, they're suddenly swept in different directions by an immense tidal wave. Along with thousands of others, they fight not only to survive but to find one another amid the mayhem. Struggling through the shattered trees and scattered

debris, Maria spies their old-

est son, terrified but courageous Lucas (Tom Holland), but she has no idea what happened to Henry and the two younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pender-


Inspired by Maria Belon's recollections, writer Sergio G. Sanchez, director Juan Antonio Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura (previous collaborators on the far-more-subtle Spanish ghost story "The Orphanage") melodramati-

cally dramatize the catastrophe, delineating incidents of kindness and compassion among strangers. Propelling the picture, Watts is fiercely brave and empathetic, acting with every muscle in her body, while McGregor's urgency is suspenseful and gripping.

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The compelling depiction of tsunami devastation and carnage is even more staggering than Clint Eastwood's prologue to "Hereafter," as Maria is repeatedly submerged under the rushing water, relentlessly struggling to the surface. Then, badly injured and in excruciating pain, she must make her way through muddy rubble with Lucas to seek help, get to a local hospital and, somehow, locate the missing members of her family amid teeming hoards of anxious refugees and unidentified corpses.

Unfortunately, there are

also unnecessary plunges into ponderous sentimentality, the most grievous being an impromptu philosophical inter-lude between Lucas and an elderly survivor (Geraldine Chaplin).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The

Impossible" is a viscerally vigorous 7, a grim, gritty, graphic chronicle of disas-ter.