There’s something about a survival story created inadvertently by disaster against impossible odds that holds its weight in gold. Like a moth to an open flame, we’re drawn to it, consumed by its narrative and substories for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that comes to light during and well after the actual event and once the thousands of volunteers, police, military, and camera’s go home, we move on, only to be fully engrossed when the next disaster comes around. Pulling us right back into the heat of the moment is Hollywood, sometimes months, sometimes years later looking to capitalize on those involved, the unsung heroes who didn’t get the recognition they deserved, for more exposure or capitalistic gain, however you want to see it.
Whatever the event, manmade or natural, the Hollywood machine has found a way to sink its claws into the story and squeeze out every ounce of emotion to elicit a response. In no way should humanity have to relive certain historical events in dramatic fashion like September 11th or the Holocaust, but they are engineered to showcase bravery and courage in the face of imminent danger, overabundant they may be.
The story behind Thirteen Lives is at the effect of a natural yearly occurrence in that part of the world – something that happens right on schedule, a monsoon during the rainy season in Thailand. Known as the Tham Luang cave rescue that took place in 2018, 12 boys belonging to a junior football club and their coach become trapped 4 kilometers, approx. 2.5 miles inside the cave for a period of 18 days. Zero light besides a few flashlights, no food and hope, the boys and their coach are feared dead with no options of escape or rescue. That is until 5000 volunteers and several nations come together to perform a miracle.
The near 2-and-a-half-hour film opens on the boys practicing for an upcoming game, most likely, and talking, joking with one another while getting ready for a birthday party later that day. One of the boys, mentions going to the cave for a bit of fun and they all agree, except one. After arriving at the cave and following the thirteen victims’ miles into the cave, the downpour starts and we cut to the worrisome parents and officials in charge, only to go back to the boys when a diver makes the hours long swim.
Beyond the few moments of discovery and rescue, director Ron Howard follows the thousands of men and women aiding in the rescue attempt. At the forefront are expert cave divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). Joining the search halfway through the film is an Australian anesthetist and cave diver Harry (Joel Edgerton). All of whom play a crucial part in saving the thirteen lives.
Serving as the backdrop of Howard’s dramatization is the FIFA world cup – heard in the background when divers and rescuers are at the base camp. Used just enough as a distraction, the tournament never steals the focus away from the main narrative. Same can be said for the political angle Howard plays up.
Along with several books written about the daring rescue of the thirteen trapped souls, Thirteen Lives follows 2 previous released documentaries that came in the past 4 years since the story broke. Both of which follow similar if not the same approach in telling the story from entering the cave on June 24th, 2018, to being rescued 18 grueling days later. The 2021 National Geographic documentary The Rescue directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin which is on Disney Plus literally outlines what Howard’s directing effort does that’s written by William Nicholson.
Since Thirteen Lives follows the same pattern as the documentaries, a different approach would have worked in the dramatizations benefit. Instead, it’s the bronze medal winner in an unsanctioned race. Seeing this rescue from the boy’s perspective would have made this film bulletproof. What we get is a generic film with A-list actors giving a solid performance but not much beyond that scratches the surface.
As for the performances in question, Mortensen plays the pessimist, Farrell, who’s character has a son and can sympathize with the boys plays the optimist, and Edgerton plays the skeptic. Over time as the plan agreed up is set in motion, the will power to save the boys grows stronger with each rescue. All 3 give solid performances – matching one another’s energy and temperament throughout the 18 days.
Nicholson’s screenplay stays on safer side of the line, more tame than taking a risk, the true danger of this impossible mission is merely touched upon. Introduce a new angle, a different sense of danger from the boys. For all we know, being trapped was complete agony and until a filmmaker decides to take that route, every film will just blend together. For the most part, everything goes according to plan. Minus a tragedy or two, one being Thai Navy Seal Saman Kunan (Sukollawat Kanarot), drowning and a prolonged infection, there is no sense of stakes or built tension.
A flooded cave should cause a sense of claustrophobia and extreme uncomfortableness to even the bravest person with tight corners and small pathways to maneuver through, but Howard doesn’t go that far. One wrong move could mean death. I’m just surprised it was this smooth an operation. The Rescue adds that sense of hopelessness, anxiety and emotional acceptance of fate from the use of home footage Rick and John capture whereas its dramatic cousin doesn’t come close to that sensation.
Given the choice, I’d watch both the documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin and Ron Howard’s despite being eerily similar. Howard’s steady hands behind the camera, and experience with true survival by any means stories like Apollo 13 keep Thirteen Lives a captivating watch but it’s the tame, lackluster screenplay and a runtime that could have been shaved a few minutes that keep the film from standing out from the crowd. What Thirteen Lives accomplishes in the 2 and a half hours however captures the human spirit – complete bravery and resilience, a problem that had to be solved and the consolidation of different nations to save lives. Powerful beyond words, a universal feeling of strength in humanity.
Screenplay By: William Nicholson
Story By: William Nicholson & Don Macpherson
Directed By: Ron Howard
Music By: Benjamin Wallfisch
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
Release Date: July 29, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 27 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%