THE STORY – A rescue mission is assembled in Thailand where a group of young boys and their soccer coach are trapped in a system of underground caves that are flooding.
THE CAST – Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton & Tom Bateman
THE TEAM – Ron Howard (Director) & William Nicholson (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 142 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
The 2018 Tham Luang Cave rescue is one of the most inspiring global news events in recent memory. A seemingly impossible task that required the efforts of over 10,000 people from over 17 countries over a two-week-long period resulted in the (spoiler alert) successful rescue of thirteen members of a regional soccer team in Thailand, aged eleven to sixteen, with their 25-year-old assistant coach. This powerful story was well-documented in the critically acclaimed documentary “The Rescue” (2021) by Oscar-winning filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo“). Now, Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard is delivering the narrative feature film version of this incredible story with “Thirteen Lives.” For those who saw “The Rescue,” Howard’s latest will feel too familiar. But for those who have not already seen the documentary, “Thirteen Lives” will likely be a rousing and exhilarating thriller that tells a heroic story where the odds were heavily stacked against the thirteen lives trapped inside the flooding cave.
On June 23rd, 2018, a junior association football team in Thailand got stuck in the Tham Luang Cave after a monsoon came earlier than expected and flooded the cave, cutting off all means of escape. With members of the Thailand government, the SEAL team, and ordinary citizens all pitching in to rescue the boys before they starve, drown or asphyxiate, two world-renowned British cave divers (who do this act for recreational purposes), an IT consultant named Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and a fireman named John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) are called in to help however they can. Their attempts prove helpful as they can go further than any other diver into the cave, but the mission is still challenging, even for them, as the water continues to rise with the dive to the boy’s location taking six hours to complete. Once the boys are miraculously found safe and alive, the real question is, how do these elite divers get the boys, who have no experience in these situations whatsoever, out alive? With time running out, Stanton gets the idea to call in a fellow diver Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), who has a unique skillset none of them have but could be the difference between life and death for the thirteen lives stuck inside the cave.
Ron Howard has been having a string of bad luck with his recent films, including “Hillbilly Elegy,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” and “Inferno.” He’s still a more than capable director when given a good screenplay, with films such as “Cinderella Man, “Apollo 13,” “Rush,” and “Frost/Nixon” all showcasing his range and prowess. Despite being handed a “can’t-lose” story and with his usual technical skill on display, the central problem plaguing his latest film, is indeed the screenplay by William Nicholson. Even if you have not seen “The Rescue,” the characters of Richard Stanton, John Volanthen, and Richard Harris (who doesn’t show up until an hour into the movie) are all stripped of any personality and characterization. They are all reduced to bare-bones essentials; Stanton is the cynic of the group who feels the boys won’t survive dive back to the mainland, Volanthen is a father who is missing his son back at home, and Harris is his occupation. The only one who goes through any kind of a transformational arc is Stanton, portrayed well enough by Viggo Mortensen, who always commits 100% to any role he plays. Still, if you’ve seen “The Rescue,” you’d know that Stanton is a lovable, quirky guy who does not have the same level of pessimisive shown here. To rob the character of such likable traits feels like a misstep as it would’ve gotten the audience more emotionally invested in the story, especially considering the level of doubt and uncertainty Harris already has to carry, knowing his critical role. Such aspects did not need to be shared by both Stanton and Harris, and the movie suffers for it as a result.
Instead of digger deeper into the lives of the three men (along with fellow cave diver Chris Jewell, played by Tom Bateman, who makes the most of very little material) who were essential towards the rescue effort, Ron Howard instead stages the nearly two and a half hour film as a procedural thriller. We get all of the dates, times, distances from one cave chamber to another (sometimes displayed on the screen via. computer graphics for us to clearly see), and a bird’s eye view of the operation from multiple perspectives. Yes, the cave divers are the heroes of the story, but Howard spends a great deal of time on Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn’s (Sahajak Boonthanakit) role in the mission (including the fact that this was his final week as Governor), the parents of the trapped children, the Thailand SEAL team led by General Anupong Paochinda (Vithaya Pansringarm) and SEAL diver Saman Kunan (Sukollawat Kanarot) who (along with Thai Navy SEAL Beirut Pakbara who died a year later due to a blood infection contracted during the mission) tragically lost his life attempting to deliver diving cylinders to the trapped kids.
Howard’s intentions are all in the right place as the scale of the event is captured in great detail and edited in such a manner by James D. Wilcox that even without intriguing characters to bring us along the journey, we’re still riveted from beginning to end by everyone’s valiant efforts to come together (one sequence in particular highlights how crucial a group of villagers was by sacrificing their crops to divert water flow from the mountain and onto their land). The main technical achievement of “Thirteen Lives” is the gripping and intricate sound work. Every clang of the oxygen tank against a rocky surface, breath the divers take through their masks, and sounds of the rapidly shifting water patterns are all created with precision and pulse-pounding effect. Even if you know how this story ends, the anxiety created by every underwater sequence is inescapable. All of this is aided by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom who photographs the events above and below water with a realistic point of view that feels documentary-like in its own way. The underwater sequences, in particular, are claustrophobic and murky as they cast a sense of dread over the viewer, clearly establishing how difficult these waters were to navigate through.
“Thirteen Lives” tries to tell a faithful version of the extraordinary events which took place in Thailand in the summer of 2018. There’s no denying Ron Howard’s craftsmanship. Along with the exemplary sound work, the dynamic cross-cutting of the editing to show the mission from multiple perspectives, and the “you are there” photography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, he has given us a film that for those who have never seen “The Rescue,” will stand on its own as a moving and tense motion picture. But for those who have seen “The Rescue” and are hoping to get more out of “Thirteen Lives,” the underdeveloped writing of the characters, and the decision to tell the story as a procedural with little to no emotional investment on a personal level, with an abrupt ending that asks us to finally feel something while text appears over a black screen describing the monumental achievement we just witnessed and the cost to those who participated, will likely produce a hollow and lesser experience. It’s not one of Ron Howard’s worst films, but given the subject matter and everything he had to work with, it should’ve been one of his very best.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Ron Howard’s procedural-thriller take on the rescue attempt is faithfully captured in gripping detail through Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s documentary-like camerawork, precise editing & intricate sound work.
THE BAD – Pales in comparison to “The Rescue” with a glaring lack of character development and emotional investment.
THE FINAL SCORE – 6/10