It was the equally horrifying and remarkable story that circulated the news cycle for 18 days. Thirteen people, 12 young soccer players and their coach, became trapped inside the Tham Luang cave in Thailand, when torrential rainfall flooded them 4 kilometres deep, with no way out. A swift response from the Thai government, along with the intensive media surrounding the devastation, led two British divers to volunteer their expertise, and lives, in an attempt to rescue the thirteen trapped souls.
In 2021, National Geographic released a documentary titled, The Rescue, from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (co-directors of the Academy Award nominated Free Solo), which chronicled in fantastic and intimate depth, the entire operation from the perspectives of the divers, the army, the Government and more importantly, the families who anxiously waited daily to hear whether their children were still alive. Aside from The Rescue (which I highly recommend watching), it wasn’t long before the film rights to this story turned into a script penned by William Nicholson (screenwriter of Gladiator and Everest), and then making its way into the hands of director Ron Howard (the filmmaker behind Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind) to create Thirteen Lives, a dramatised recollection of the Tham Luang cave rescue, starring Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and Joel Edgerton, filmed in Queensland, Australia!
Farrell plays John Volanthen, an IT consultant from Bristol, who’s hobby for diving steered him onto the British Cave Rescue Council. When his name is put forward to the Thai government as a specialist diver who may be of use with the rescue, John contacts his fellow cave diver, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortenson) in the hope of joining him. Despite his mention about “not even liking kids”, Rick, a former firefighter, flies to Thailand with John, and the two soon discover that the treacherous, multi-hour-long dive to rescue the stranded soccer team may be more than the initially bargained for.
Director Ron Howard does two important things with the film’s opening. Firstly, he shows the innocence of the children, all of whom are smiling, laughing, playing soccer, and enjoying one another’s company. A trip to the cave doesn’t seem out of the ordinary for this team. In fact, it’s portrayed as an often-visited tourist attraction. So, there is no immediate peril or anxiety about these kids entering the Tham Luang cave together. This is when Howard showcases his second most important element in starting the film. As dark clouds loom and thunder bellows from above, the streams of water that enter the cave as the camera pushes in tighter, creating a truly claustrophobic feeling that relentlessly builds like the rushing current in the caves, and soon the chaos of the water and the shaking camera, mixed with the terrifying cries of the kids immediately shocks you into submission, preparing the audience for what is going to be a tense-filled ride.
Howard’s direction really shines in the cave scenes, with incredible practical sets and underwater shots that fill the screen in a way that conveys breathlessness off-screen. The use of info-graphics throughout display the ever-climbing distance that John and Rick travel underwater, with is juxtaposed by the tight camera shots immerse you right into the anxiety-fuelled action. The chaotic nature of the story and of Howard’s direction are a true asset to each other that really drives home the fact that at any point, anything can go wrong in this race against time.
Nicholson’s screenplay focuses on the varied hearts and cores of the story, following many characters and plots that played a significant role in the rescue mission. A touching moment follows a young scientist who devises a plan to pump water out of the cave using a rapid flow, but at the cost of dumping the water in the crops and farms of local villagers. When the farmers and villagers are confronted with this option, they see it as the only way the boys can be saved, even if it means a year’s worth of food and livelihood is taken in an instant from them. The emotion driven scenes of prayer from the Thai locals are interjected at perfect moments throughout the film to provide levity from the tension, but also double down on the faith this country had that these boys were going to survive the ordeal. And although this movie does have a heavy focus on how John and Rick played an integral part in the rescue, the story never shies away from showing the effect these 18 days had on the people of Thailand, and ultimately, the entire world.
Farrell and Mortenson (and eventually, the addition of Joel Edgerton later in the narrative) shine because of their incredibly subdued, ‘every man’ demeanour. John and Rick weren’t larger-than-life extroverts, they were everyday heroes, and the lead performances reflect that so accurately that it’s worthy of praise because it feels like non-acting by course of great acting. The authenticity of Farrell and Mortenson make these characters so easy to engage with, and sharing their wins and failures evoke genuine, emotional reactions.
When Joel Edgerton enters the film, it is as Richard Harris, an Australian anaesthetist who is the only doctor in the world willing to risk a potentially lethal method of sedating the team in order to safely extract them from the cave. Balancing the morality of the injecting a smorgasbord cocktail of sedatives or risking leaving the stranded team in the cave another day plays heavy of Harris, but in turn, brings out a phenomenal performance from Edgerton, who’s brashness doesn’t interfere with his emotional stakes into the situation.
My only criticism of the film is it’s almost indistinguishability from The Rescue documentary. Both films follow the same subjects, with similar visual stylings and outstanding emotional stakes in the narrative form. And while this isn’t a detrimental aspect to the film, having it release so closely to the documentary may leave a little to desire from those who have recently seen it, myself included.
All in all, Howard has checked all the right boxes in creating a heartful, yet suspenseful drama with Thirteen Lives. With lead and supporting performances that drive the authenticity, this is a solid depiction of truly extraordinary events.
Thirteen Lives is streaming on Prime Video from August 5.
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