Over the course of an engaging (if inevitably repetitive) two and a half hours, “Thirteen Lives” reenacts the incredible rescue effort that captured the world’s attention for several weeks in the summer of 2018: Twelve boys and the assistant coach of a Thai soccer team went exploring the Tham Luang cave when an unforeseen rainstorm forced them deeper and deeper. What should have been a reasonably easy hike instead became a near-death experience, as rising waters and an early monsoon season left them stranded for days, until a handful of the world’s most experienced divers arrived on the scene.
International news coverage ensured that audiences around the globe were aware of the situation, but far fewer know just what it took to get those kids to safety — which explains why this feel-good story has inspired multiple films, from “The Rescue” to “The Cave,” with an even more “authentic” Netflix series (so they claim) still to come in September. “Thirteen Lives” represents the “Hollywood version,” in which Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton play the save-the-day heroes.
Directed by Ron Howard — the populist optimist whose folksy celebration of people’s better nature makes him the closest thing American cinema has to Frank Capra — it’s far from the corny, manipulative treatment the above description might suggest. Back in the ’90s, Howard brought us such white-knuckle spectacles as “Backdraft” and “Apollo 13.” More recently, he helmed emphasize-the-positive disaster docs “Rebuilding Paradise” and “We Feed People.” So he’s got plenty of experience in this arena.
With “Thirteen Lives,” the director goes for a different approach: grittier, more immersive, emphasizing the collective effort over the obvious “white savior” dynamic at its core. To rescue the kids, a handful of daring divers — Brits Rick Stanton (Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Farrell), plus Australian MD Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton) — joined local authorities and the Thai Navy SEALs, going back and forth through narrow, dark passages. Compelling? Sure. Claustrophobic? Absolutely. Cinematic? Not so much, given the low light, tight spaces and almost total lack of conventional “scenery.”
To navigate the logistical challenges of shooting in such an environment, much of it underground and/or underwater, Howard teamed with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (the Thai DP responsible for the mysterious, low-light look of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee,” as well as the sunny, seductive warmth of “Call Me by Your Name”). The cave settings were re-created artificially, of course, but the footage reinforces the film’s eyewitness feel, with its blown-out highlights and deep, dark shadows.
Nothing looks glamorous, not even the stars — but then why cast stars? Here, these beautiful men have been made to look like ordinary guys, while Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) do their best to downplay the contributions of any one person. At the same time, they neglect to include anything about the personalities of the kids — apart from the tiniest one, Chai (Aom-Sin Pasakorn), who gets a little extra attention since it makes his rescue that much more dramatic when the face mask doesn’t fit.
Among the thinly sketched adults, the assistant coach (James Teeradon Supapunpinyo) teaches the principles of meditation to manage the boys’ anxiety; the regional governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) is an expendable functionary, prepared to take the fall if anything goes wrong; and local volunteers are shown creating systems to drain the caves of an estimated 56 million gallons of waters. Through it all, the kids’ parents are reduced to anguished extras. Meanwhile, it’s not like Nicholson’s script gives Rick, John and Harry much more in the way of background detail. When all is said and done, we learn that one of the fathers died while all of this was going on, but the 147-minute movie is so focused on the task at hand that there’s no room for subplots.
The problem — one that results from being true to events, but feels hugely inefficient from a storytelling standpoint — is that the rescue effort required an inordinate number of long, carefully navigated trips through the same oppressively tight tunnels. There and back, and then there and back again, on and on over multiple days until the entire soccer team had been extracted.
Howard tries to find ways to keep these dangerous trips engaging: a diver loses track of the line guiding him out, one of the kids stops breathing for a time, etc. But the director’s unshakable idealism shines through, as he shares an exceptional survival story of the kind so often teased by Reader’s Digest (e.g., “I Survived a Bear Attack/Quicksand/Killer Bees”). But knowing the outcome from the top brings an element of impatience to these repetitive trips.
Granted, re-creating the operation this convincingly took enormous work, but putting his Capra hat aside for some Billy Wilder-esque wisdom might have made for a richer story. Howard is drawn to uplift, politely acknowledging the various parties that pitched in, when an “Ace in the Hole”-style situation is staring him in the face, with all those international reporters gathered around like vultures, hoping for the best, waiting for the worst. The movie works, but there has to be a more original way in to the Thai cave rescue story, other than through the main entrance, high-fiving its heroes at every step. For starters, it might have spent a little more time on the “Thirteen Lives” on the line.
“Thirteen Lives” opens theatrically in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago exclusively for one week on July 29 before launching globally on Prime Video on Aug. 5.