Thirteen Lives, 2022.
Directed by Ron Howard.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Sukollawat Kanarot, Theerapat Sajakul, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Vithaya Pansringarm, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Nophand Boonyai, Tom Bateman, Paul Gleeson, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Josh Helman, Zahra Newman, Kevin Spink, and Pasakorn Hoyhon.
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.
Having already released a documentary on José Andrés (a renowned chef that made it his mission to go around feeding locals suffering through natural disasters) this year, followed up by a dramatization of the flooded Thailand cave rescue of child soccer players (twelve boys and one coach) with Thirteen Lives, director Ron Howard appears to be interested in the different ways countries can come together for good during times of distress. It’s certainly a noble theme to focus on, but there’s a significant factor working against his recounting of these heroics: excellent documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi released The Rescue late last year, which is one of the best documentaries of 2021 and, as of right now, the definitive film covering this incredible story.
That’s not to say Ron Howard is cashing in while this tale is hot, but considering it feels like he’s more interested in making a shot-for-shot dramatization of that documentary down to the narrative structure without finding its angle or perspectives, it is hard to recommend this when the brilliant and fresh alternative is sitting right there. Anyone that has seen The Rescue will likely find Thirteen Lives dry in comparison. And that’s not because Ron Howard has made a bad movie. If anything, the craftsmanship and performances are fine here, but it doesn’t take away that the filmmaker has copied the homework. So for those that haven’t seen The Rescue, it’s very well possible that they will be fully immersed here.
For fairness, I will pretend The Rescue does not exist from here on out. Thirteen Lives centers on the global efforts to rescue the aforementioned soccer team from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, which typically doesn’t flood during the summer. Initially, it seems that screenwriter William Nicholson will flesh out the children as characters, with a star player, an upcoming birthday party, and some light bullying. Once the children are trapped (which occurs offscreen) and the parents realize that they must be stuck due to the pouring rain, one might think the characterization will shift toward the guardians. There is also an effort to show the group work from the locals and various outsiders joining the cause to help, as they redirect water and fill in sinkholes, but they’re mostly relegated to the background.
Soon after, viewers are introduced to expert divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), but in defense of the film, they don’t necessarily come across as the main characters. Presumably, Ron Howard has the good sense to dial back the performances from Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen so they don’t overshadow the rest of the team effort. Rather than present these two divers as larger-than-life heroes, the heroism is nuanced to the degree that suggests while they are the most recognizable faces in the movie, they aren’t more important than anyone else here, especially not the children.
Anyway, after consulting with a doctor played by Joel Edgerton (I’m purposely being vague about what he specializes in, as it’s integral to the rescue plan and a shock that shouldn’t be spoiled for anyone unfamiliar with the actual story), the divers bring in some backup (Tom Bateman and Paul Gleeson). The four of them must cooperate with a stressed governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) set up to take the fall if any of the kids die. Due to the insanity of what is being proposed to get the children out of the cave, it does take some convincing before receiving the green light.
After days of planning and politics, it’s eventually go-time, and Thirteen Lives is undeniably compelling yet feels as if it’s missing something to transcend its urgency and emotional stakes. Again, maybe it’s because I have seen and love The Rescue, but the suspense never reaches the heights it could have. That’s also disappointing, considering the rescue mission is what Ron Howard is most fascinated by here. Still, the claustrophobic low visibility cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and ticking time clock percussionist score from Benjamin Wallfisch provide some thrills, as does the terrific acting from the entire ensemble.
Thirteen Lives is not a bad movie, just a somewhat unnecessary one, given Ron Howard has no interest in taking a new approach to this incredible true story that does deserve to be told in more ways than one.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com