The Tham Luang cave disaster of 2018 is one of the rare instances in recent history where almost everyone remembers exactly where they were when they first heard the news. That summer, headlines relentlessly relayed increasingly grim updates on an adolescent soccer team that became stuck in a labyrinthine Thailand cave when it unexpectedly flooded. Every day, reports related exactly how long the kids and their coach had been trapped in there. It had been a week without food for the 11-16-year-olds, they declared. Before we knew it, it was two. This captivating incident was so memorable, so high-stakes and so unlikely, that it practically begged to be adapted into a riveting survival blockbuster. And if there’s anyone who’s up for that task, it’s Ron Howard, the director who helmed the adrenaline-pinching space-thriller Apollo 13 and nauseating shipwreck disaster In the Heart of the Sea.
Thirteen Lives chronicles the Tham Luang cave incident and, more specifically, the efforts that went into rescuing the 13 people trapped inside. The film revolves mostly around British rescue divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), a gruff no-nonsense bloke, and the sensitive, gold-hearted and puppy-eyed John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), as they race against the clock to get the boys out.
But Richard and John quickly realize that this isn’t simply a matter of diving into Tham Luang and swimming back out with the boys. Getting to the area where the team is sheltering takes six hours—one way. For some of the world’s most experienced divers. How could they possibly expect preteens, kids, to make the journey back without panicking and drowning?
Just as the rescue mission was never going to be easy, neither was dramatizing the story. Over two-and-a-half hours, Howard juggles a myriad of issues. There’s the central question of how Richard and John are going to make this impossible rescue possible. But then there’s the issue on everyone’s minds: How are the boys holding up after weeks of no food? How about their parents? What efforts are the locals making to help out? And what issues face the government?
Most of Thirteen Lives is told from Richard and John’s perspective, which makes the whole thing feel oppressively one-sided—especially when a lot of the film’s tedious runtime comprises the two swimming back…and forth…and back…and forth…and back again. Maybe we don’t see the six-hour swim in real time, but it sure feels like we do. In fact, we are hardly given insight into the kids’ side of the story at all, which is arguably the most compelling part.
To be fair, this isn’t within Howard’s control (beyond his making the movie in the first place), as Netflix owns the rights to the boys’ stories. This also prevented Free Solo directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s award-winning doc The Rescue from exploring the actual survivors’ plight. Still, Netflix’s licensing didn’t have to stop Howard from exploring the lives of their parents or the locals, nor should it have stopped him from fleshing out the issue that some of the boys were stateless, and therefore did not have rights as Thai citizens.
Working within Netflix’s confines, though, Howard manages to eke out a compelling—albeit shallow—action flick. Cinematographer and frequent Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborator Sayombhu Mukdeeprom masterfully plunges the viewer into the action using a wide lens that forces the cave tunnels to encroach into the brutally claustrophobic frame. While Howard’s commitment to playing the diving scenes out in full can get a little tedious, it also often works well to put the viewer in the headspace of the rescuers as they embark on their endless, frustrating and scary rescue mission.
Farrell and Mortensen pull off their tough, physical roles splendidly, though the former was a touch miscast—I just can’t picture you spelunking, Colin, sorry. For more reasons than his convincing physical capability, though, Mortensen steals the show. Richard is not your average hero, and Mortenson plays him with a perfect blend of pessimism and fierceness that makes for an equally unusual and fascinating watch.
Still, great performances and authentic cinematography can’t completely make up for a story made hollow by copyright issues, and the dramatization doesn’t bring anything to the table that The Rescue didn’t already cover. If you’re looking for an engaging-enough rehashing of a riveting true story, by all means watch Thirteen Lives. Just don’t expect it to present you with anything that you haven’t seen in the long list of survival flicks already out there.
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: William Nicholson
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Sukollawat Kanarot, Thiraphat Sajakul
Release Date: August 5, 2022 (Amazon)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.