Five years ago, the world held its collective breath as 33 miners, trapped for 69 days after a cave-in at the San Jose Mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert, emerged one-by-one from a capsule lowered 2,300 feet below the surface. As a real-time TV event, it was every bit as riveting as O.J. Simpson in the white Bronco, but considerably more inspiring, thanks to the bravery of the miners and the persistence and ingenuity of the rescue effort. Based on Hector Tobar’s book “Deep Down Dark,” “The 33” aims for a comprehensive survey of efforts above ground and below, but winds up looking less like a sober docudrama than a ginned-up Irwin Allen disaster movie. The inherent uplift of the story may survive the wafer-thin characterizations and the conspicuously non-Chilean ensemble, but box office success is hardly an ace in the hole.
The trouble begins almost immediately, as director Patricia Riggen (“Girl in Progress”) and her phalanx of screenwriters (Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, Michael Thomas) hastily sketch the miners during a retirement party in Copiapo, Chile. As it happens, the grizzled honoree has a few days left in the gold-copper mine before hanging up the hardhat, and another (Mario Casas) begs for extra work because his wife is expecting soon. If a collapsed mine didn’t get them, they might as well have tickets for the S.S. Poseidon.
The party gives other ill-fated laborers a brief introduction, each with conflicts or personalities that are never expanded beyond a phrase: There’s Edison Pena (Jacob Vargas), an Elvis impersonator; Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nunez, familiar from “The Office”), who’s in the middle of a feisty love triangle; and Luis Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips), known to the men as “Don Lucho,” whose warnings about mine safety go unheeded. Other key players come aboard later, including Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba), an addict who’s estranged from his steadfast older sister, Maria (Juliette Binoche), and Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta), a Bolivian newcomer who attracts suspicion from the group.
When the 121-year-old mine collapses, sending the 33 deep underground to an area called “the Refuge,” they coalesce around Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas), aka “Super Mario,” a spirited and indefatigable leader who keeps them united under desperate circumstances. As Super Mario and his comrades work to stretch three days’ worth of food and water, the rescue effort hits an immediate snag when the mining company fails to act and the Chilean government takes over at great political risk. Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), the minister of mines, asserts himself as the determined public face of the effort, working closely with Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), the brilliant chief engineer.
In broad strokes, the events that unfold are undeniably riveting: the ominous cracks in the mountain wall finally giving way, a near-miss attempt that seems to seal the miners’ doom, the international effort to drill a hole large enough to get the capsule down, the uncertainty of that first miner inching through the brittle rock. The trouble is, “The 33” only knows broad strokes. Lacking any specific angle on the ordeal, the filmmakers give the once-over-lightly treatment to every aspect of it, which ensures that none of them will be properly served. Political issues like the negligence of the mining company or the calculations of the government are raised with little follow-through, and the community within “Camp Hope,” the makeshift tent city for the miners’ wives and children, sags from inattention.
While having the international cast speak English is an unfortunate concession to commercial reality, the performances do little to smooth over the problem. Binoche is one of the best actresses in the world, but not the ideal choice for the woman known for selling the best empanadas in Copiapo. Ditto Byrne, the pasty Irishman, who fakes his way through the role of a Chilean engineer by underplaying it the best he can. Banderas has the opposite problem as the exuberant “Super Mario,” sucking so much oxygen out of the room that it’s a wonder there’s any left in the Refuge for the other 32.
“The 33” opens with a sobering statistic about the roughly 12,000 people who die from mining accidents every year, but it seems content to pay tribute to these men who survived without grappling with the conditions that put them in this situation. The thrill of reliving the Chilean miner saga again on screen isn’t nearly as compelling as watching it unfold at the time — not necessarily because the audience knows the outcome, but because there’s so little else in which to invest. While Riggen goes drilling for inspirational moments, the rest of her movie crumbles from neglect.
The location shooting reps a consistent plus, with Checco Varese’s camera getting a tactile quality from a Colombian mine while caressing the majestic desert exteriors. The musical theme, by the late James Horner, is nothing if not persistent.