Thirteen Lives opens in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago theaters on July 29 with a release on Prime Video Aug. 5.
In 2018, the whole world was transfixed by the Tham Luang Nang Non disaster which found 12 young Thai soccer players and their coach trapped inside an almost impenetrable underground cave network after a flash flood. With global news coverage, the details of the dive-based rescue operation had humanity on the edge of their seats. But the true drama was happening amongst the boys’ families, the Thai authorities trying to save them, and the international volunteers who amassed to work out many plans of action. Director Ron Howard recreates that moment in real time, bringing his camera into the depths of the caves to give us a tense and uncompromising diver’s-eye-view of the impossible plan to bring them out alive. Thrilling, hopeful, and revealing, Thirteen Lives is Howard once again putting audiences right in the thick of the peril, turning a global event into a personal story of will and then triumph.
Howard opens the film with a prologue that sets the context of the soccer team and their average, everyday lives in Northern Thailand. Excited about a birthday party that evening, they pregame with their coach (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) by visiting a local underground cave for some amateur spelunking. Open to the public and safe outside of monsoon months, they venture in with flashlights for what is usual playtime for the kids – but then an unexpectedly early monsoon storm douses the mountain and surroundings with incredible rains. When the kids don’t show up to the party that night, their parents drive to the caves and find all 13 bikes at the mouth of the cave, but no boys.
The Thai response is swift as the local Governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) — who is a political lame duck and potential scapegoat if needed — and the Thai Navy SEALS set up an operations post outside the cave. The locals also rally together to feed and support the parents who camp out on site, while other locals and even expats, like British cave diver Vern Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), share their knowledge of the cave interiors. There’s even a former local engineer who takes personal time from his job in Bangkok to travel to the site to ask locals to help him dam the sinkholes on the mountain so the flowing water won’t stop the rescue efforts. All of this staging is integral to setting up the competency of the efforts and how, despite the thousands of global volunteers, making it clear the civilians were the core of the operation. And this setup is told entirely in the language of the region, which means they’re not afterthoughts in their own story.
Using each day of the recovery as a title touchstone, Howard uses his documentarian skills to set up a clear timeline, with visual markers on a map of the caves for progress context, while folding in new players as the efforts ramp up. By June 25, the Thai SEALS do an exploratory dive and find tight obstacles and low visibility in the caves is prohibitive. That’s when two expert British cave divers, Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), are summoned by Unsworth because of their singular experience. It creates some friction for the SEAL Commander Kiet (Thira Chutikul), but Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson rightly don’t lean into overblown posturing to augment the drama. It’s subtly drawn and allows the film to maintain focus on the bigger picture of everyone’s goal of getting the 13 out alive.
To the credit of Mortensen and Farrell, they modulate their performances extremely well as disparate friends who are pragmatic about the situation. Where Stanton is too blunt, Volanthen is the warmer messenger, who uses his empathy as the father of a boy the same age as the missing kids, to help keep the Thai operations team hopeful yet extremely cognizant of the unlikely odds facing them. They’re bolstered by Joel Edgerton’s empathetic turn as Dr. Harry Harris, a diver and anesthetist from Australia, who arrives to consult on the most provocative potential solution. His expertise is needed to create a reasonable plan in getting the team out of the caves for what will essentially be a five to seven-hour dive; in other words, a bleak test of will for even the most experienced diver.
Smartly, Howard does frequent check-ins with the anguished, waiting parents and community, so the film doesn’t pivot into a story about the western heroes. But the overall piece would have benefited if there was a Thai character that was afforded as central a place in the story as the English-speaking actors, with asides to their personal lives or connection to the region. Nicholson sort of goes there with the Commander and his returning SEAL graduate Saman (Sukollawat Kanarot), but it’s not explored in a satisfying way. However, Thai folklore regarding the cave, the region’s cultural practices, and religion are woven throughout, including the complexity of the Myanmar immigrant issues, three of whom are in the caves, and the concern by their parents that they won’t get saved with the Thai children. All of those choices fill in the details of the story likely unknown by broader audiences and make the telling more robust and thoughtful.
Where Thirteen Lives really excels is in how Howard and Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom capture the bone-chilling claustrophobia of what the divers had to traverse to get to the survivors. From stalactite obstacle courses, to murky, treacherous sightlines and heavy currents, the cameras are often positioned right on the water-line and then submerge with the divers for their authentic aquatic perspective. Augmented with exceptional sound design that accentuates the alien nature of it all, they manage to make the normally mundane flow of water menacing. It’s often an overwhelming auditory and visual experience that necessarily puts the audience right in the peril of every foot gained within the caves.
The stressful final act tracks the nail-biting rescue effort itself, with the Thai government, the Governor, and the divers secretly agreeing to try the most extreme option, which is truly the only option. The tension of watching the mortal divers weigh the responsibility of safely returning the 13, but also the Thai divers who stayed with them to monitor their rapidly degenerating surroundings, will leave you squirming in your seat. As one of the divers says pre-dive, they would have been heroes saving one of the boys, but now it’s all or nothing, and you feel that in every frame. Howard uses every lesson he’s absorbed from Apollo 13 and his documentary efforts to imbue Thirteen Lives with all of the drama, tension, and realism of what happened to give us a needed reminder of human resilience, and the capacity we have to sacrifice and care when the situation calls us to rise to the occasion.
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