During the summer of 2018 the football World Cup had kicked into action, but while most of the world was preoccupied with the historical event there was another happening in the northern area of Thailand. Whilst many united in the celebration of their nations scoring goals for their country, an elite group of professionals and volunteers had a shared goal of their own. To rescue the lives of 12 young Thai lads and their football coach who become trapped deep in a cave. With water levels rising at an exponential rate due to heavy downpour, real-life British divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) – with the aided assist of thousands of people from all over the world – will have to think fast before the underground system becomes entirely flooded.
I think what Thirteen Lives does so well right off the bat is how grounded in realism it feels. Director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Rush) seems content with telling the story as accurately as he can based on the account of what was documented. There’s no unnecessary flamboyancy or overdramatization. The true story in itself almost seems unbelievable, and the deeper this film goes (pun intended) the disbelief that this rescue mission was carried out is immeasurable.
Where this film works best is when we’re thrown straight into the claustrophobic chaos of the real action. The authentic underwater sequences, which leave little to see visually, and incredible sound design which often only provides the noises of streaming water passing through, or the clanging of oxygen tanks crashing off of the rigid rocks in which these remarkable peoples need to navigate through. There’s no question that these hero’s had to work in some harsh conditions, but the film does a fantastic job of portraying exactly what that could (and most probably did) feel like.
When the two Brits eventually find the kids buried deep in the cave, the next obstacle is finding a way to get them back to safety. Easier said than done when the point of contact is miles from the caves entrance. Adding to the already treacherous dive is the lives of 13 hopefuls. So after an awful lot of improvised problem solving, they arrive at one highly speculative plan, which brings Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton) into the story. When it introduces his role into the proceedings – along with Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) – the story gets more gripping, and the stakes are increased.
One of the areas I think Thirteen Lives misses the mark is its runtime. Reaching the near two and a half hour mark despite not feeling necessary. During the first few moments of the story, I felt it was flying through its time frame, but if you were more familiar with the events you would understand why the first twenty or so minutes seems like it’s in a hurry. I admire that the focus falls on those responsible for the rescue. Jumping between the key divers, the media frenzy they had to endure, and the many deliberations cast between those who know best and those who had reputations to uphold. The kids are rarely even the focus at all, at least for a huge portion of its middle act and it makes sense that Howard would divert our attention away from what wouldn’t have been necessary for the story to push forward.
Howard’s method to prioritise fact over fiction is a meritorious one, and perhaps one that is often ignored in Hollywood. His attention to the details backed with the raw and often challenging imagery and sound design heightens the story at play as apposed to hindering or weakening it. A touching true story polished with Howard’s slick touch. With its arrival on Amazon Prime, here’s hoping your sound system and room lighting can support what’s at offer here.