Synopsis – A rescue mission is assembled in Thailand where a group of young boys and their soccer coach are trapped in a system of underground caves that are flooding.
My Take – Back in June 2018, a team of 12 soccer players (aged eleven to sixteen), accompanied by their coach, embarked on an adventurous journey to explore the Tham Luang Caves in Thailand. However, little did they know that incessant monsoon rain storms would lead to the subsequent flooding of the caves, blocking their way out, and trapping them deep within. A calamity which took 18 days to end and over 5,000 people, including cave divers, doctors, rescuers, Navy SEALS, farmers and others to rescue them as the entire world glued on the efforts.
In this live-action re-telling feature of the harrowing event, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code), working on a script penned by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Everest) and Don MacPherson (Entrapment), despite the fact the we all know how things are going to turn out, successfully manages to recreates the horror and the heightened tension of the daring rescue operation, all the while keeping us glued to the edge of our seats throughout, even when the sense of claustrophobia becomes overwhelming at times.
Working as a tribute to the human spirit and courage more than just a chronicle of what happened in the cave that day, the film is full of heart, and has more emotion and drama than fictional stories. All the while backed by excellent performances across the board.
Sure, the 147 minutes run time might hamper some viewing ability, yet that doesn’t discount the fact that the film is a worthy representation and without a doubt one of the finest films to release this year.
Chronicling more specifically on the efforts that went into rescuing the 13 people trapped inside, the story follows British cave rescue divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), who are called to help by Vernon Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who had mapped the caves inside on a non-rainy day. And while rescue efforts had begun immediately with Thai Navy SEALS rushing to the sight. Cave diving is a unique skill practiced by only a few, and is much different than the open water diving in which the SEALS excel.
But when the two men reach the stranded boys and coach, it becomes apparent that, as difficult and challenging it was to find the group, getting them out of the cave seems all but impossible. That is until, Stanton comes up with a dangerous idea, which required calling in extra help from Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) and Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson), and the special services of Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), a cave diving hobbyist, and more importantly, an anesthetist. Putting in motion a deadly operation of last resort, with only a handful of people with the knowledge of the ongoing action.
Just as the rescue mission was never going to be easy, neither was dramatizing the story. The film is very deliberately shot from the point of view of the outside world. We learn very little about the boys, and none is introduced to us as an individual. Indeed, they vanish from the screens from the moment they enter the caves to the moment the first divers make contact, just as they vanished in real life, and that adds to the tension.
The script plays out chronologically, adding more gravity to the events. The melodrama is kept to a bare minimum, and the narrative is very matter-of-fact. Interestingly, director Ron Howard’s feature attempts an inclusive narrative by building parallel plots, which also trains its focus on the efforts of volunteers, locals, families and government institutions. The film respectfully highlights the collective involvement of locals and volunteers who helped in every possible way they could.
We get a feel for the entire operation as water is being pumped out of the cave, a water expert and volunteers frantically divert new rainwater into the rice fields, and political maneuvering occurs as the outgoing Governor (Sahajak Boonthankakit) is being set up as fall guy in case the efforts fail. The narrative is built in a way to keep us engaged, especially with a nondescript water engineer’s plan being the breakthrough the rescue team desperately needed.
Through this man-oeuvre, we are also shown how the farmers altruistically decide to flood their crop fields to help save the hapless team inside the cave. The sheer volume of water that is displaced from the cave gives a glimpse into the magnitude of the mission.
Without a doubt though, the major highlight of the film is the production design and the underwater cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, which plays an essential role in making us gasp for breath often and inducing claustrophobic feels. The diving scenes are expertly filmed and the ever-present claustrophobia, and risk of disaster underscores how courageous these men were. The replica of the Thai cave, erected in Queensland, is a compelling recreation that is bolstered by the color tones and the landscape of the cave’s exterior. In fact, such is the detailing that we almost believe we are watching all of it unfold in the first person.
It also helps that the film contains a talented cast, especially the likes of Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton, Paul Gleeson and Tom Bateman who not only portray the characters well, but seemed to have physically carried out the stunt performances too.
The Thai actors, Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, Narongsak Osatanakorn, Nophand Boonyai, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Thiraphat Sajakul, Vithaya Pansringarm, Weir Sukollawat and Teeradon Supapunpinyo manage to stand out too. On the whole, ‘Thirteen Lives’ is a fantastic and thrilling dramatization of a real rescue incident that celebrates human spirit.
Directed – Ron Howard
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 147 minutes