Thirteen Lives delivers an immersive, impressively reconstructed telling the famous Thai cave rescue, but the film sags a bit when it comes to interrogating the seemingly fascinating psychologies of the parties involved.
In the spring of 2018, not long before monsoon season, a group of 12 boys and their soccer coach became trapped in a flooded cave system in northern Thailand. The ensuing rescue operation, which took over two weeks and involved squadrons of volunteers from around the world, is one of the great triumphs of our time — more heartwarming than the most unlikely sports victory, and certainly more inspirational than anything a Hollywood exec could dream up. No wonder it’s been the subject of so many screen treatments, from last fall’s documentary The Rescue to a 2019 Netflix miniseries, The Cave.
Not to be outdone, director Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives is a fictionalized account of these harrowing events, trading The Rescue’s never-before-seen footage for big-budget production and nail-biting drama. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell play Rick Stanton and James Volanthen, British amateur cave divers who’ve been called in for their unique expertise in claustrophobic, low-visibility diving conditions: they alone are adept at the breathing and maneuvering techniques required to navigate intricate underwater caves. As the days tick by, it’s these amateurs, as well as a handful of their pals, who accomplish what the Thai Navy SEALs can’t. First, they locate the group, alive but without food or fresh water for 10 days, at a small beach several hours’ swim from the cave entrance. Then, with the help of Dr. Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian diver who also happens to be an anesthesiologist, the rescuers devise a can’t-make-this-up method for extracting the group. Along the way, they must navigate all sorts of tricky power dynamics on the ground, including their relationship to the province’s Governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit), who knows he’s the fall guy if things go awry. Oh, and did we mention that the monsoon season has now started in earnest?
Once viewers are taken underwater, it’s clear that open-sea divers, no matter their military pedigree, are simply no match for the hellishly claustrophobic Tham Luang Nang Non cave system. Even the names of the various cave sections are terrifying: these men are supposed to navigate a pitch-black, shoulder-wide stalactite tunnel? While towing two oxygen tanks and an unconscious body? Sound designer Michael Fentum heightens the immersive quality of the flooding caves by amplifying every ragged breath and the unnerving clang of oxygen tanks bumping against rocks. Meanwhile, cinematographer Simon Christidis captures the disorienting, murky darkness of being trapped underwater. His many closeups of the divers’ hands grasping their rope line show how tenuous their connection to the surface really is — as does the near meltdown that one man, Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), endures when he momentarily loses the line. Thirteen Lives’ production designer Molly Hughes actually recreated the cave topography, with direct input from locals who live nearby. The result is the closest audiences can reasonably get to being underwater with the divers — except for when the inevitable VR experience is released, of course.
Besides recreating the immediate atmosphere of the rescue operation, Howard compassionately chronicles the frenzy of activities that surround the cave entrance, led largely by civilian volunteers. There’s the rain-lashed tent city that springs up, complete with round-the-clock news trucks and food vendors. High above the cave are scores of volunteers, led by water scientist Thanet (Nophand “Aon” Boonyai), who work frantically to redirect the pouring rain away from the mountain. The farmers who live nearby sacrifice their fields so that millions of diverted gallons of water have somewhere else to go. And through it all the boys’ parents can do little but wait and pray as the days tick on.
This careful reconstruction adds to the film’s already long runtime, but never feels distracting. In fact, there’s even more Howard could have explored, including the story behind the mythological princess who guards the cave. Christidis devotes many knowing shots to a shrine in her honor without a satisfactory explanation of why she matters, other than that the mountains resemble a sleeping woman. And the 12 boys, who range in age from 11 to 16, aren’t given much screen time either — they’re most vivid in the moments leading up to the cave exploration, in the film’s first ten minutes. Perhaps their ordeal, however nightmarish, is still relatively straightforward — not quite as thorny as the logistical and ethical minefield of their eventual rescue.
But even the inner lives of the divers are left untouched. Stanten and Volanthen are, by all appearances, fairly normal middle-class guys — Stanten a retired firefighter, Volanthen an IT consultant with a young son. What drew them to such an obscure passion? What toll does this insular, dangerous hobby have on their loved ones? Even the rescue itself is filled with the sort of “All right, lads”-type language that seems to shut down attempts at introspection. It’s possible that any sort of emotional interiority would detract from the task at hand. Or maybe the producers know that viewers looking for a more contemplative retelling can find that version elsewhere. For whatever reason, Howard lets his film’s leads remain as murky as the rising floodwaters.
You can currently catch Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives in theaters or streaming on Amazon Prime Video beginning on August 5.