Thirteen Lives review: Tham Luang cave rescue film is good, but it could have been extraordinary

Thirteen Lives review: Tham Luang cave rescue film is good, but it could have been extraordinary

Dir: Ron Howard. Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Sukollawat Kanarot, Theerapat Sajakul, Sahajak Boonthanakit. 12A, 147 minutes.

In Thirteen Lives, a reenactment of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, director Ron Howard resists any and all Hollywood glamour. It’s evident in the posture of his two leads. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, as British cave divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, stand around huffing and puffing with their hands on their hips, like two dads trying to build an Ikea cabinet. In their spare moments of peace, they bicker over who’s eaten the last of the custard creams. Absolutely nothing about them screams action hero.

It means Thirteen Lives avoids the mistakes of other films adapted from real-life events – such as Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris – which so often turn those affected into either superheroes or cannon fodder for cheap movie thrills.

It takes about 20 minutes for Howard’s camera to first plunge into the waters of Thailand’s Tham Luang cave complex. Our introduction to the scene is so brief it seems to happen in a blur. The country’s Navy Seals have been deployed before we’ve barely had time to register that 13 souls, a junior football team and their coach, have become stranded somewhere deep within the tunnels, pinned in by a flood. Stanton and Volanthen arrive later, nearly a week into what became an 18-day rescue mission. It’s easy for two of the world’s best cave divers to find the kids. Getting them out, however, seems entirely impossible.

Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), another cave diver who also happens to be an anaesthetist, is called in and pitched a plan he immediately calls “insane”, “unethical”, and “illegal”. It involves sedating the children and passing them through the narrow tunnels “like packages”, knowing that if they wake up at any point they will most likely panic and drown. With the oxygen swiftly depleting, it’s the only plan they have.

Howard has filled his cast with the kind of unfussy, selfless actors who will happily chew over the minute details of their characters instead of conjuring any kind of grandeur about themselves. A story this extraordinary can tell itself, really. Mortensen perches his glasses at the edge of his nose and silently calculates. Farrell latches on to the morsels of tenderness Volanthen shares in his brief phone conversations with his son. But their roles in this story haven’t been inflated beyond what they need to be.

William Nicholson’s screenplay honours the collective effort of this feat: the local Chiang Rai governor, played by Sahajak Boonthanakit, who knows he carries the burden of responsibility if anything goes wrong; Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai), the water engineer who figures out the floods are coming from above and not below; and the local farmers who agree to divert the rain down the mountain even if it means losing their crops. Everyone shows bravery and resilience. There are no egos, no outbursts – there’s hardly room for that between all the stalactites. The only mistakes made are down to pure human fallibility. Howard isn’t even tempted to make villains out of the easy targets of mass media or government bureaucracy.

The tension of Thirteen Lives is implicit, and ramps up like a vice – how long until all these people’s luck finally runs out? But I do wonder whether all this soberness has prevented a good film from being an extraordinary one. Especially when this story has already been told multiple times in the short space of time since it occurred, most thrillingly in last year’s documentary The Rescue. Howard’s focus is on documenting action rather than capturing emotion – the claustrophobia, the ravenous grief, the shadow of guilt around the corner, ready to pounce if the wrong decision is made. We see little of the children themselves, and the abject terror they must have experienced spending 18 days in the dark. But, in an industry full of boastful fantasists and relentless exploitation, you have to be thankful for someone like Howard. He cares about the stories he tells. And that’s rare.

‘Thirteen Lives’ is in selected cinemas from 29 July, and arrives on Prime Video on 5 August