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Image: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

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Thirteen Lives is a Shallow Dramatization of an Incredible Deep Cave Rescue

5000 people. 17 countries. 1 miracle that united the world.

Thirteen Lives Review

It wasn’t long after the Wild Boars, the Thai youth soccer team trapped in a cave for nearly a month, were first sealed in by an unexpectedly heavy rainfall that I wrote down in my little notebook “I can’t believe I’m bored.” The harrowing true tale of the rescue of a dozen young soccer players and their coach was bound to be adapted into a feature film. I was encouraged when it was announced that Ron Howard would direct. After all, it was Howard who brought us another story of a nearly impossible rescue in pitch black peril with Apollo 13. But it dawned on me while watching Thirteen Lives that Howard’s thrilling film about Jim Lovell’s doomed journey to the moon was over a quarter century ago.

This incredible story should have been an absolute lay-up for any competent director and though he can be hit-or-miss, Howard has proved himself more than capable. The fact that this story was already told in the fantastic documentary The Rescue meant that there was even more of a clear storytelling path laid out. Despite the involvement of Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen, Thirteen Lives manages to be a soulless, uninspired adaptation of one of the most inspiring stories of the decade. A story that innately included a trove of subplots, ticking clocks and palpable threats is sanded down into a forgettable episode of a procedural TV show. The incredible events are just enough to keep the audience engaged but there is little else to redeem Thirteen Lives and baffling how Howard could have dropped the ball on this.

If you were somehow not following the news in 2018, a youth soccer team in Thailand called the Wild Boars, explored a local cave along with their coach after a practice in late June. A heavy storm hit the area while they were deep in the cave’s chambers, flooding the narrow paths and trapping them inside. The rescue efforts grew from a local to a national, to an international story because of the ages of the young team, the unique challenges presented by the cave, and the international participation. Thailand’s Navy SEALs, as capable as they are to deal with open water rescues, were not equipped to take on the unique challenges presented by the cave. It took the expertise of a group of British divers who specialize in navigating the submerged stalactites and stalagmites of the geological spaces to reach and then plan the daring and deadly rescue of those trapped deep within the mountain.

Thirteen Lives
Image: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Thirteen Lives seems like Howard on auto-pilot. So much of the storytelling feels lazy relying on tell, not show. Though attempting a heightened realism, characters bluntly state their relationships with each other and the news media portrayals are used not only for exposition but to reiterate plot points.

There are the buds of character depth that sprout up in the film but they are never given enough light to blossom. They ultimately become simply lip service for perfunctory motivation. The first two British cave divers on the scene are Rick (Mortensen) and John (Colin Farrell). They are presented with a contrasting dynamic: Rick is a cynic and a loner with a distaste for kids while Rick is empathetic because he has a son he loves very much. There is a puzzling moment where Rick eats two of John’s biscuits but says he’s only had one. John goes on to talk about how important trust is, certainly when it comes to a near-impossible rescue, but that idea of trust is never really tested or brought up again. There is just another call back to eating biscuits. Rick gets an emotional arc, but the bit of empathy and compassion bestowed upon him from the experienced is extremely measured and barely makes an impact.

The Thai characters are the most severely underserved, appearing mostly as sketched outlines of archetypes: the concerned parents, the scared kids, the no-nonsense soldiers. The parents and children, in particular, are given the least amount of humanity. Elements are introduced and withdrawn from this movie out of nowhere. One example is the citizenship status of the coach and a number of the boys. The worry is brought up by a parent concerned their child won’t be rescued but is quickly waved off by the governor. There is no simmering anxiety because of this or any other specific detail other than the kids are trapped.

A whisper of a political subplot can be felt with the province’s governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit). His promotion is put on hold until his work managing the rescue is finished but there is no sense of his ambitions, what kind of politician he is, or how his managing of the rescue efforts might change him. He simply exists as an authority figure who must make tough decisions.

Thirteen Lives (2022)
Image: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

An inexcusable omission is the point-of-view of the soccer team. Once they are trapped, we don’t see them again until they are first reached by Rick and John. We don’t experience their panic or dread once they are sealed into the chamber that, unbeknownst to them, they will sit in without outside contact for more than a week. We don’t see how they acclimated to their terrifying circumstances or how their coach lead them in meditation in order to keep the boys calm. The issue of dwindling oxygen in the chamber is quickly addressed but then never returned to as an ongoing threat.

These may not be such glaring shortfalls if not for Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s 2021 documentary The Rescue. While Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film relied on the standard talking-head interviews and dramatizations, they were able to set up and address the details that made the already unbelievable story seem like more of a miracle. There was a palpable sense of dread and amazement in the documentary that makes Howard’s telling feel anemic.

It’s unfortunate that we may just be in a fallow period of Howard’s directorial career. His post-Da Vinci Code trilogy career has been brief and underwhelming. Interspersed throughout a run of documentaries was the gag-inducing Hillbilly Elegy and Howard stepping into the troubled production of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

For whatever reason, Howard was not equipped for the density of the true-life story he was adapting. I found more inspired filmmaking in a re-watch of his 1999 satire Edtv. Optimistically, we know Howard is capable of so much more and a quick glance at his IMDB page shows he has a promising number of upcoming projects. But Thirteen Lives seems destined to be a footnote in his career, buried deep within the “Browse” section of whichever streaming service holds its rights at any given time. Luckily, this real-life miracle is captured in The Rescue, which is what you should hit play on instead of this.

Written By

Kent Murai Wilhelm is a multimedia journalist born, raised, and based in New York City. He writes and makes photos, podcasts, and videos about film and local New York City stories. Kent attended SUNY Purchase, where he studied New Media, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He produces podcasts for The Atlantic Transmission and produced & hosted From Brooklyn With Love, a monthly deep-dive into the world of James Bond at Videology. https://letterboxd.com/Kwhc/

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