A lot of work went into creating the technical aspects of “Thirteen Lives,” from Molly Hughes’ skillful recreation of the interiors of Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave to its two lead actors getting SCUBA-certified so they could dive without much use of stunt doubles. The underwater cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is impressive and the sound mix is often quite eerie in its depiction of water and cave noises. All this effort is for naught. Ron Howard’s latest directorial effort is a tedious, mediocre retelling of the June, 2018 incident where 12 Thai adolescents and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave for 18 days. They were rescued by an international crew of cave divers led by Rick Stanton and John Volanthen.
If you have that old, familiar feeling after reading that synopsis, you’ve seen either the 2019 fiction film “The Cave” or last year’s spectacular documentary, “The Rescue.” The latter film haunted my viewing of “Thirteen Lives” in a way that may seem unfair. Granted, there have been several excellent documentaries that led to less-than-stellar fictional movies with major stars, but that usually occurred after some time has passed. There’s barely a year between Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s version and Ron Howard’s, so it remained far too fresh in my mind. Making matters worse, “The Rescue” is 40 minutes shorter and has re-enactments with, and footage shot by, the actual divers who participated in saving the Wild Boar soccer team. It is also harrowing to the point where I, with my fear of drowning and my claustrophobia, considered leaving the theater.
Not once did I flinch during “Thirteen Lives,” despite spending an equal amount of time watching underwater sequences in passageways so narrow that one person can barely fit through, let alone ferry another person to safety. Despite an occasional map being superimposed on the screen, viewers are barely afforded a sense of geography. Howard and his editor, James Wilcox kill the momentum and tension by often cutting between what’s going on underground and the numerous attempts to divert water above. Since they fail to establish any sort of consistency in the timeline between these events, we’re left asking “is this happening at the same time?” It’s disorienting and distracts us from the drama.
Perhaps that distraction is intentional, as William Nicholson’s script is full of two-dimensional versions of the real people involved. “Thirteen Lives” relies on its star power to do the heavy lifting of character development. Real-life divers Rick Stanton, Chris Jewell, John Volanthen, Jason Mallinson and Dr. Richard Harris are played by Viggo Mortensen, Tom Bateman, Colin Farrell, Paul Gleeson and Joel Edgerton, respectively. Each actor is given one characteristic, whether it’s doing an unexpected accent, being a worried father or playing an intensely grumpy realist who doesn’t have faith in his own ability to save these poor kids. That last quirk belongs to Mortensen, who scowls so much he evoked the drill sergeant he played in “G.I. Jane.”
Since Howard and company know how easily “Thirteen Lives” can sink into a White savior narrative, we occasionally spend time with the Thai Navy SEALs who are also trying to rescue the team and the farmers who are willing to destroy their rice crops in order to aid in the rescue. They are all written as flatly as the White characters, though there is some entertaining friction between the military leaders and the government, represented here by lame duck Governor Narongsak (Sahajak Boonthanakit). Boonthanakit’s performance is kind of fascinating, a dance between acting like a man in power and expressing the weary notion that he’s being positioned to take the fall should the rescue go awry.
When not in the caves with the divers, Howard is content to tell this story in such a drab, ho-hum, overly respectful fashion that it starts to drag. We should be emotionally invested in the outcome, yet we barely get to know any of the trapped players or their coach. “Thirteen Lives” begins with scenes of the team practicing then riding to the cave for that poorly timed descent that coincides with the monsoon that will entrap them. In those moments, the film appears to be centering its focus on them. It’s a while before we even meet any of the White actors playing the divers. And yet, the teammates are reduced to mere victims, pawns in their own story. The only parent we hear from in any regard is played by Pattrakorn Tungsupakul. As the mother of a boy named Chai, she’s given very little to do besides wander around in the background praying and looking worried.
To give one example of how Howard misses the opportunity to rivet us on an emotional level, watch the scene where Rick and John first encounter the thirteen people trapped in the cave. As soon as the divers emerge from the water, the reveal that everyone is alive is completely botched. The establishing shot of everyone is uncomfortably garish. Rather than offer immediate support, the divers start taking videos of these starving folks who have been in the cave for ten days. This should have been an emotional shot in the heart, yet it feels as cold as all that cave water.
The best visual of how “Thirteen Days” fails on any level other than technical may be the scenes where the divers execute a plan of rescue by anaesthetizing the teens, tying their hands and feet so they don’t struggle if they awaken, and them navigating them to safety. We should have more of an attachment to each of these people, and to the divers who make this possible. Instead, the process just looks like an assembly line spitting out product; it’s mechanical and efficient, but completely devoid of feeling. Just like this film.
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