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.
In the true story of Thirteen Lives, twelve boys and the coach of a Thai soccer team explore the Tham Luang cave when an unexpected rainstorm traps them in a chamber inside the mountain. Entombed behind a maze of flooded cave tunnels, they face impossible odds. A team of world-class divers navigate through miles of dangerous cave networks to discover that finding the boys is only the beginning.
The biggest worry going into Ron Howard’s dramatisation of 2018’s Thai cave rescue was the looming shadow of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s superb documentary The Rescue, which chronicled the genuinely jaw-dropping twists, turns and human ingenuity involved in retrieving thirteen souls from their flooded underground labyrinthine prison. If you haven’t seen that then you’re in for a tension riddled two hours in Thailand, but if you have then it diminishes none of the drama involved in Thirteen Lives. In fact it acts as a compendium piece, filling in blanks, and sometimes accentuating the performances of the impressive cast.
With so much happening over seventeen long days and nights, you’d think the events of Thirteen Lives might be better suited to a mini-series, but Ron Howard has less than half the time it took to navigate the flooded tunnels to where the boys sat starved of oxygen for all that time in which to tell his story, so it’s quite an impressive feat that he manages to tie all of the narrative threads into a cohesive, propulsive nail-biter.
Who do you focus on? The kids and their teacher trapped in the cave? The individual lives of this disparate group of divers, and each of their own idiosyncrasies? The distraught parents of the children? The politicians making legacy defining decisions? The potential was there for this to be as chaotic and impenetrable as the network of tunnels the divers would have to traverse, but somehow William Nicholson’s screenplay manages to successfully balance all of those elements, ensuring that each has their indelible moment in a story flooded with them. As such Thirteen Lives is packaged like your traditional Hollywood disaster movie, but because the events are so fresh in the mind, the weight of the drama is almost tangible.
The first half of the film is really about the diving team, so once you’ve finished playing spot-the-soccer-shirt and the kids are trapped in the cave, we get a kind of Avengers Assemble of some of the world’s finest cave-divers, who just happen to be two plain as the nose on your face Englishmen, played by Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen. Both are excellent, especially if you’ve seen The Rescue and can draw parallels with their real-life counterparts, but they economically instil their characters with so much depth that they’re immediately intriguing and easy to root for.
Such an approach could easily have made Thirteen Lives a white westerner saves the day narrative, but Howard sidesteps this by emphasising that the operation was a team effort, and so we get a huge “oh, I didn’t know they’d done that” revelation which shows a group of locals sacrificing their crops in order to divert monsoon rain from the top of the mountain, in a kind of makeshift Crystal Maze game, as well as the contribution of the Thai Navy Seals, which includes the tragic heroics of volunteer diver Saman Gunan (Sukollawat Kanarot), whose fate plays out in a devastatingly haunting underwater scene.
On which, the recreation of the diving sequences are an effective combination of claustrophobic murk, eerie silences disturbed by the odd exhalation of bubbles and oxygen tanks clanging against the rocks, all punctuated by weirdly tense moments in which an appendage will appear to be stuck in an all too small gap for a second, before being wriggled free. This drama is increased ten-fold when it comes to the second half of the film, which is primarily focused on getting the boys out of the cave, because even if you know the outcome of their efforts, just watching it unfold, burdened by the life-and-death choices that they’ve had to make, you can’t help but take a deep breath with them as they descend into the darkness.
Thirteen Lives always feels innately low-key and intimately real, yet still manages to be thrilling in a way that never threatens to spill over into becoming one of those manipulative blockbuster disaster movies. Ron Howard’s deep dive is his best film in years.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter