Director JA Bayona (The Orphanage) draws out exceptional performances in his cast, as well as his technical crew, to turn a true story into a potent dramatic thriller. This is such a staggering story of survival that the title almost feels understated. And even though it has a hugely emotional tone, the film never feels mawkish, taking a gritty, intimate approach to a situation that's seriously mind-boggling.
We're talking about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which claimed nearly 300,000 lives. But this is the story of just one family: Henry and Maria (McGregor and Watts), who travel to Thailand with their three sons Lucas, Thomas and Simon (Holland, Joslin and Pendergast) for an idyllic Christmas holiday. Then the Indian Ocean tsunami tears through the landscape. Lucas manages to stay with the badly injured Maria, and they go looking for help. Meanwhile, Henry finds Thomas and Simon and sets out to reunite his family. But the devastation is total, and it will take a miracle for them to find each other in the confusion of relief efforts and medical emergencies.
Avoiding the pitfalls of the usual disaster movie, the script remains tightly focussed on these five characters, even as they meet others along the way. This lets us feel every moment along with them. Meanwhile, the soaring cinematography and seamless effects work make it feel like we're watching actual footage of the tsunami, complete with almost unnervingly realistic make-up. In the tidal wave's wake, these people are grippingly sympathetic, more concerned with helping their family members than with wiping the blood off their faces. And all five actors vividly let us feel their characters' internal journey.
Watts has the stand-out role as the mother who is unable to help her son, but it's Holland who ultimately claims the film's spotlight, anchoring every scene as a young boy who rises to the challenge of an unthinkable situation. And this is what the film is about, rather than the usual plot-driven action thriller. It's about the overwhelming emotions of a situation that feels like the end of the world, when nothing is more important than having the people we love around us. And while this family was clearly fortunate to survive, the film also quietly pays homage to all of those whose lives were lost or forever changed in a moment.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 4th January 2013
Box Office USA: $19.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $130.7M
Distributed by: Lionsgate Films
Production compaines: Apaches Entertainment, Mediaset España, Summit Entertainment, Telecinco Cinema, Canal+ España
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 148 Rotten: 35
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: J.A. Bayona
Producer: Belen Atienza, Alvaro Augustin, Ghislain Barrois, Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Screenwriter: Sergio G. Sanchez