"The Impossible" is an astonishing, irresistibly gripping disaster drama that happens to be true. With intense emotion and unblinking intimacy, it recounts one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. On Dec. 26, 2004, a tsunami devastated resorts and villages along Thailand's west coast. Melding excellent performances and mature reflections on fate, hope, courage and existence, the film tells the real-life story of a family whose idyllic holiday became a nightmarish ordeal.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play Henry, a corporate type, and Maria, a doctor, who bring their three sons to a seaside luxury hotel. They bask in tropical breezes, open gifts, frolic in the pool and release glowing paper lanterns to float up from the beach and light the night sky. It's an image of fleeting beauty and fragility that underscores the life-and-death struggles to come. The day after Christmas, with no more warning than a rush of birds fleeing the palm trees, a wall of destruction obliterates the coast, tearing the family apart.

The stunning, surreally realistic sequence devastates the theater as well. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona uses pummeling subjective camera work and sound design to plunge viewers into the visceral terror of a universe gone mad. Bayona isn't a sadist, but he doesn't mask nature's cruelty.

Maria and her eldest son, Lucas (the astounding Tom Holland), wash up on a war zone floodplain with no idea where the others may be, or indeed if they are alive. Mangled and dazed from shock, Maria uses her remaining strength to guide Lucas to safety and shelter another child separated from his parents. Her medical training gives her insight into the severity of her injuries and she's clearly not telling her son everything she knows. Bayona tightens a dozen such strands of suspense around our throats. The moment one loosens, another cinches tight.

The story curves back to McGregor and the two youngest boys (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast, remarkably sensitive performers). Henry, stripped of every First World advantage, hobbles barefoot across the chaotic island in search of his lost family members. McGregor's gravity and tenderness elevate every beautifully crafted scene, turning what could have been a stock brave-guy role into something deeper and richer.

Old-school disaster movies like "The Poseidon Adventure" treated their characters as dispensable victims to be removed from the action as colorfully as possible. Here, they're individuals, represented with dignity. We see Lucas struggle with morbid thoughts while his mother, her own survival in doubt, charges him with helping others as much as he can. When they reach an overwhelmed hospital, bedridden Maria sends her boy off to assist other refugees. The pair's imperfect bravery in the face of tragedy, and the kindness of the strangers who tend to them, is an ode to the human spirit that rises when all else crumbles. Few adventure films present a sense that life truly matters. That's exactly what makes "The Impossible" so fiercely resonant.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186