CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Sukollawat Kanaros, Thiraphat Sajakul, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Vithaya Pansringarm, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Nophand Boonyai, Tom Bateman, Paul Gleeson, Lewis Fitz-Gerald
RUNNING TIME: 142 mins
BASICALLY…: When a junior football team becomes trapped in a Thailand cave, a daring rescue mission is ignited…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Well, it was bound to happen at some point. The 2018 rescue of thirteen young football players from the flooded caves of Thailand, a story that captured the attention and hearts of the world, has been turned into a big Hollywood production, with pedigree talent like Oscar-winning director Ron Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (himself an Oscar nominee for writing Gladiator and Shadowlands) bringing the real-life story to dramatized life. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the rescue has been shown on-screen; last year, the captivating documentary The Rescue debuted to solid response, and understandably left some people nervous that the then in-production Howard movie would seem redundant next to the more informative and expansive film from the Free Solo team.
In a way, it kind of is a bit redundant, with a tiny hint of awards-centric cynicism thrown in, but Thirteen Lives is far from a total write-off, keeping a decent amount of suspense flowing despite the whole world knowing how this story ends, and is a well-made enough movie to keep you reasonably on-edge throughout.
The movie begins as the young football team, along with their coach, make that fateful trip to the Tham Luang caves in North Thailand, where a sudden spot of monsoon rain floods the cavern and traps them deep inside. Very quickly, an international rescue operation gets underway, with the likes of Thai Navy SEALs and a small group of British divers, including Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), spending most of the eighteen-day operation trying to swim their way through the dark and perilous waters of the cave to locate the boys, and then somehow try and get them out alive.
Howard’s film is mostly what you’d expect from a Hollywood dramatization of the Tham Luang rescue mission, following the order of events relatively closely (although some are sped up or side-lined altogether for purely dramatic purposes) and offering a few moments of suspense to keep audiences invested. However, rather than go the full Hillbilly Elegy and turn up the dramatics to a point where it no longer feels natural (this, by the way, is the much better Ron Howard film), Thirteen Lives admirably tries shaping itself in the form of a naturalist Paul Greengrass docu-drama, where most of the events are recreated as closely as possible to the facts with little emphasis on the exaggerated drama. There are benefits to this, since it allows the film to retain a tight focus on the central mission without bogging itself down with unnecessary “movie” moments, like Oscar-baiting monologues or manipulative musical scores, but since characterisation is more of an afterthought within this structure, it does make it difficult for the viewer to connect with most people within the narrative, meaning there is a danger of not being as emotionally investing as the film perhaps wants to be. The film honestly could have used a few of those “movie” moments (albeit sparingly), if only to establish a stronger engagement with the real-life heroes that Thirteen Lives tries hard to depict.
Despite the trailer’s heavy (but, from a marketing perspective, understandable) focus on A-listers Mortensen, Farrell, and Joel Edgerton as key anaesthetist Richard Harris, the movie is much more of an ensemble feature than said promotional material lets on. A healthy amount of Thai actors are given ample focus as important figures during the rescue, from Sahajak Boonthanakit as local governor turned mission operator Narongsak Osatanakorn (who’s portrayed here as a halfway compromise between a high school principal and the mayor from Jaws), to Sukollawat Kanaros as the tragic Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, whose appearances in the movie all seem to give off some serious “two days from retirement” vibes (then again, I remember saying the same thing about his portrayal in the documentary, so maybe in this case the trope really does have a foot in reality). Not all of them get a whole lot to do other than constantly fret over the boys’ safety, and as for the boys themselves they really aren’t on-screen that much to even be designated a bunch of fictionalised personalities, but everyone certainly does a decent enough job under the much more naturalist and even documentarian style of filmmaking that Howard has opted for.
When things move underwater with its several deep-diving sequences, the film does come a bit more gripping. They’re shot in a way where you’re certainly meant to feel the utter claustrophobia of swimming between numerous tight spaces, with the sounds of oxygen tanks scraping against the rocky surfaces just adding to the genuine suspense (even though, again, you know exactly how it’s going to pan out). Sometimes, it can just be haunting, especially when some divers slip up and lose their way with limited oxygen left, leading to one death scene which is both tragic and also legitimately unnerving to watch. Admittedly, there could have been a greater push to make these sequences a lot more impressive from a technical or visual standpoint, but here they work perfectly fine, and do their job in raising those necessary levels of suspense.
Overall, Thirteen Lives is a movie that was pretty much inevitable ever since the real-life events occurred, and it does an okay job of being more or less exactly what you’d think a Hollywood rendition of the 2018 Tham Luang rescue mission would be. However, Howard does at least resist the temptation to go full-out Hollywood with his film, opting instead for a more realistic docu-drama approach which, much like last year’s documentary, is certainly interesting to watch, if somewhat light in other departments like character and emotional engagement. The documentary is probably the version I’d recommend more, because I remember it being a bit more investing, but this would be a nice follow-up to put on right after.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Thirteen Lives is a passable dramatization of the 2018 Tham Luang rescue mission, which director Ron Howard admirably presents under a docu-drama lens that invests more in the actual mission than in character or other plotting.