The only real problem with Thirteen Lives, an engrossing account of the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their coach from desperate straits when they become stranded in perilous caves during a monsoon, is that the same story was just recounted in the documentary The Rescue last fall. Yes, of course, big-budget feature films starring known actors can draw a lot more customers than do docs. But the fact that Ron Howard’s sometimes stirring new drama will only be in theaters for a week before it starts streaming August 5 will vastly diminish the number of people who might otherwise have experienced this stirring tale on the big screen, where it was clearly designed by Howard and his colleagues to be seen. Too bad, because it’s a fulsome film, both emotionally and as a production.
Telluride Review: ‘The Rescue’
The Rescue was a very high-profile documentary, and deservedly so, as it caught both the vast challenges faced by the gritty rescue team and the personalities of the low-key macho, middle-aged, mostly British specialist group that set out to do what few, if any, others would have had a clue as to how to save the kids; the group was trapped for two weeks in an all but unreachable corner of the labyrinthian cave in the far north of Thailand.
One might say that this true-life thriller would be a virtual can’t-miss proposition, given its suspense and humanistic elements. To be sure, the film is highly claustrophobic, dominated by numerous undifferentiated participants and capped by a well-known happy ending, but the lure of creeping suspense and the vivid account of what the rescue involved mostly carries the day.
The monsoons came early in 2016, but there were nonetheless no warnings about how rapidly the cave would fill with water once the storm kicked in. The boys evidently entered the cave to perform some sort of ritual ceremony, but before the group really knew what was happening they were trapped, unable to go back the way them came due to the sudden downpour. Storms are scarcely unknown in the area, but the entrapment was something new and not anticipated to be anything like this extent.
Very quickly, it became clear that the task of rescuing the boys was beyond the capabilities of locals and that some seasoned experts would have to be found at once if there was to be any hope of saving the kids. Answering the call were some British armed services veterans: Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), a 60-year-old retired diver; John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), another underwater veteran who had often joined Stanton on his expeditions; Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgarton), a diver and anesthetist; and Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), who came up with the seemingly far-fetched plan to rescue the kids. Eventually, 17 Navy SEALs were enlisted for the endeavor; one Thai diver did, in fact, die, while another succumbed a year later to a blood infection.
Heroic Doctor From ‘The Rescue’ Recounts Dramatic Mission To Save Kids Trapped In Thai Cave: “I Was Certain It Wouldn’t Work”
The obstacles were so imposing and numerous that the odds of success were meager, to say the least: The passages through the cave system looked barely big enough for a youngster to slip through, much less big men with equipment; the rock surfaces were slimy and slippery; and communication was difficult. With each passing day the likelihood of finding the boys and getting them out alive diminished considerably.
At the same time, the scene in the vicinity of the cave entrance quickly took on a carnival-like atmosphere; in addition to the countless army and police authorities, media and the merely curious jammed the jungle area, with fast food tents springing up row by row. One doesn’t want to call the scene festive, but it certainly took on the look of a tourist destination.
The film’s style syncs up with this chaotic scene in nimble fashion. Except for the trapped boys, everyone here is always on the move, and the style deftly correlates with the nerve-wracking, every-minute-counts nature of the story; form and function are in healthy unison here. Shooting on location in Thailand as well as in Australia, director Howard enterprisingly enlisted the services of Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who in recent years has expanded his career by collaborating with such international filmmakers as Luca Guadagnino on Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria, and with Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Memoria.
Together, they adopted a gritty, down-and-dirty and exceedingly nimble visual approach to the material that accelerates the action with scarcely a pause. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, the film could have benefitted by losing another 10 minutes or so, or else by investing a few moments to provide at least a peak into the lives and careers of the rugged veterans who, despite their ages, were ready to jump into the fray and risk their own lives on this exceedingly perilous challenge.
Thirteen Lives, from MGM, gets a one-week theatrical release July 29 and launches globally August 5 on Prime Video.