Ron Howard’s take on Thai soccer team’s rescue spends too much time under water
Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives dramatizes a true story, the kind of human saga the whole world unites around. But for all its scuba-diving wizardry, the film’s title is the extent of the detail you’ll get about the kids at its center. It’s an odd turn from the director of emotional thrillers like Apollo 13 and Backdraft and clever adaptations like Frost/Nixon. But then, his last movie was Hillbilly Elegy, and we all know how that turned out.
In June of 2018, twelve kids in northern Thailand, along with their soccer coach, went exploring in a cave that flooded unexpectedly when monsoon season began early. Trapped, they remained there for more than two weeks as locals, the government and eventually an international coalition tried to figure out how to extract them safely.
THIRTEEN LIVES ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: William Nicholson and Don MacPherson
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Paul Gleeson
Running time: 147 min
Enter Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as quirky British cave-diving hobbyists Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, called in for their rescue expertise. My favorite thing about Thirteen Lives is these two impossibly hot actors leaning hard into schlubbiness and middle age. At one point someone actually says, “The old men have found the boys!” The old men. I’m dead.
Mortensen in particular is fun to watch as he digs into Stanton’s uber-practical, borderline-misanthropic character. While he’s already a celebrated rescuer, he’s also comfortable saying things nobody else will but is probably thinking, like that there’s a good chance some of these kids aren’t making it out alive, and that he’s not willing to go into a situation where he thinks there’s a good chance of dying himself. Also, he says, he doesn’t even like kids!
At its most impressive, Thirteen Lives is a nail-biting depiction of what it’s like to attempt a rescue in a very deep, very long cave filled with twisted tunnels so small they barely allow a full-sized human to wriggle through them — let alone when they’re filled with muddy, churning water. The cinematography is compellingly claustrophobic as we watch the two Brits dive their way through miles of flooded tunnels, hour after hour, to get to the kids.
But it’s somewhat underwhelming when they do, because other than a brief prologue in which the kids decide to go spelunking before a birthday party, we never spend any time with them. The group, comprising boys aged 11 to 16 and their 23-year-old coach, spent more than a week stranded before the divers initially found them. What was it like? When did they realize they couldn’t get out? What did they talk about? How did they stay sane? All we get is a few words about the coach teaching them how to meditate.
Instead, Howard divides the narrative between various groups on the outside: Frantic parents, local officials, the governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) and a water engineer (Gerwin Widjaja) who marshals an effort to divert flooding from the mountain above the cave. It’s a beehive of activity that never centers enough to let much emotion in, which is kind of a necessary ingredient in this kind of retelling. Otherwise, why not just point everyone to the critically acclaimed documentary, The Rescue, that already exists?
And for some reason, perhaps his meandering focus, Howard felt the need to make this movie almost two and a half hours long. I don’t mean to be hard-hearted, but did we really need the ninth extensive diving sequence through the same tunnels?
The big reveal — which, spoiler alert if you don’t know how this story really ended — is that the Brits come up with a “so crazy it just might work” solution to how you get kids out of an environment that causes experienced divers to have panic attacks. They’ll bring on an anesthesiologist friend (Joel Edgerton), who’s also a diver, to administer sedatives to knock the kids out for the trip. No one’s ever attempted this wild gamble, which involves re-injecting each kid multiple times during a dive. There’s real tension here, and Howard finally uses his knack for building drama.
For a time, anyway. By the time the credits roll, mostly what you feel is waterlogged.