Principal Cast : Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Sukollawat Kanarot, Thiraphat Sajakul, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Vithaya Pansringarm, Teeradon Supapunpunyo, Nophand Boonyai, Paul Gleeson, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, U Gambira.
Synopsis:  The film chronicles the events of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue that saw a junior football team and their coach trapped in a cave for a period of 18 days.

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Despite a hefty budget and the capable direction of journeyman filmmaker Ron Howard, who continues to bless us all with an incredibly diverse filmography, Thirteen Lives refuses to get itself out of second gear in retelling the story of the Thai soccer team trapped beneath a mountain for twenty days. Anyone who has seen the dramatic Disney+ documentary The Rescue will know the story, as well as a number of key behind-the-scenes personnel involved with the mammoth global effort to rescue twelve young lads and their coach, trapped inside a rapidly flooding cave system deep in the Thai jungle, and although populating his film with a solid international and Thai-based cast, Howard’s film runs out of oxygen quite quickly, thanks to inert pacing, bland script, and a lack of development – or rather, examination – on the central characters depicted.

In 2018, a junior football association team of Thai kids decides to go exploring a local cave system, the Tham Luang caves, deep in the mountains of the border between Thailand and Myanmar, in a region of the country known as Chiang Rai. Unfortunately, the boys become trapped deep in the cave system, as the monsoon rains cause water levels within the tunnels and abyss’ of the system to flood, preventing escape. Trapped for at least two weeks, the Thai government sends in Navy SEALS and amateur cave diving experts Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) to see if a rescue is possible, if only they can reach them. When the boys are all finally located – alive – a plan must be concocted to extricate them safely from the system, with the entire world’s media watching on in hope.

Thirteen Lives is a brilliant story. A story of survival, hope, and goddam miracles. I would argue it is one of the greatest feats of humanity coming together to achieve a purpose since… well, I don’t know, but the story of the rescue and the people who were there is one that speaks volumes about the enduring nature of the human spirit. Disney+ cobbled together one of the most riveting and exhaustive documentaries on this event last year, with The Rescue being a jaw-dropping insiders look at the problems facing the rescuers, the logistics of what they had to achieve, and the utter bravery of every single hero who went into the wet darkness to get those boys out. Ron Howard’s softly-softly adaptation of the event, scripted by Gladiator and Shadowlands Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson is an astute, solid play-by-play of the order of events, but whereas the documentary gave us a glimpse into the humanity of what transpired, Ron Howard’s film seems to lack a central emotional figure to attach to, or an overarching journey for one or more of the characters. Nicholson is no stranger to adapting real world people or events, with notable entries such as Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Unbroken, and Breathe among his filmography. In Ron Howard’s hands the film has a kind of perfunctory resoluteness to it, a lack of embellishment that, while plausibly accurate, removes any sense of humanity from the piece.

The most troubling aspect of Thirteen Lives‘ failure to connect is its presentation of the Mortensen and Farrell characters, neither of whom were offered any real backstory or emotional momentum. They arrive at the cave site at the request of a local Thai authority and promptly set about doing their thing but there’s no weight to their attendance, no motivating personal legitimacy to their requirement that the film bothers with. I wanted to know more about them – Mortensen’s Richard Stanton is a pragmatic grumblebum who thinks the whole thing is over before it begins – and their relationship as cave divers and friends, and a more complete picture of just how difficult this rescue was, is, or will be. Farrell, also, has a weird on-screen relationship with his son that never goes anywhere and is only hinted at briefly, while the entire emotional arc of Joel Edgerton’s Richard Harris, the anaesthetist sent in to render the boys unconscious and whose father died the day the rescue was complete, is voided thanks to the briefest of brief lip-service. I understand that the focus should be on the rescue itself, sure, and I also understand that Western audiences (who, let’s face it, are the primary audience for this movie) might have difficulty investing emotionally in a bunch of unknown Thai actors speaking in their indigenous language to carry the film, but give us at least one of the primary actors a chance to carry the film properly.

Instead, Ron Howard lets the idea of thirteen people trapped 4km inside a flooded cave marinate in the viewers mind’s eye, and this is where the film starts to come unstuck. Despite all the danger, despite all the hurdles jumped over by the Thai army and those from around the world who came to help, the film seems indifferent to a sense of jeopardy, content to replicate the underground cave system and the massive waterlogged twists and turns and the eventual rescue with a sense of fatalistic blandness. The rescuers cooked up the idea to anaesthetise each of the kids in order to get them out, lest panic and an inability to swim suffocate the attempt at a critical stage, which by rights should have been one of the most tense, frightening things you’ll see put on screen as these lads are unconsciously dragged through swelling torrents. Unfortunately, as tense as it should be, Ron Howard can’t energise the visuals to make the eventual rescue as cathartic as we might expect.

As well-mounted as Thirteen Lives is, and as compelling a human story as it is even without the Hollywood budget behind it, the film never escapes the shadow of watching the events play out on television at the time or Disney’s well-produced documentary. By decentralising the characters the viewer is meant to follow, Howard mitigates any attachment to a single person in the film and instead misplaces his focus on the event itself as the driving factor. Whether this works for you will be a matter for the individual viewer, but for me I felt a little underwhelmed by how by-the-numbers Ron Howard’s direction turned out to be. Thrilling underwater problems or diving issues or oxygen supplies or injuries should be treated as significant issues to overcome in a fictionalised film based on true events, but Howard and his team seem to want to gloss over them entirely, resulting in a film that, emotionally speaking, is all wide-shots and no close-ups. Sadly, Thirteen Lives isn’t as good as it could have been, and I would recommend you watch the Disney+ documentary instead.

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