An outstretched hand disappears in the murky water, suspended particles of dirt and dust clouding a thin beam of light that spears the darkness ahead. All around, jagged stalactites hang from the ceiling, meeting their upward counterparts like an endless, toothy maw leading down a gullet of submerged stone. The encompassing tomb is complete and tight, squeezing against shoulders and clanging against oxygen tanks. Even then, the slightest of movements churn the bottom, stirring more cave muck into the water. For the cave divers of Thirteen Lives, following a thin red rope into the darkness ahead is the only hope for returning alive.
From Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, Thirteen Lives takes the age-old storytelling principle of torturing protagonists and turns it up to eleven – if only on premise alone. The “docudrama” follows the real-world events of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue in northern Thailand, focusing on the rescue efforts of volunteer cave divers, Thai officials, and locals when a team of twelve football players and their coach are trapped by an unexpected monsoon in a rapidly flooding underground cave network. Starring Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen as British civilian cave divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, Thirteen Lives sees the duo (as well as a team of Thai Navy SEALs and a couple of civilian colleagues) face strong currents, low visibility, and medical emergencies as they navigate the cave, locate the boys, and attempt to bring them home.
The raw vulnerability of this catastrophe – employing not only a natural fear of drowning, darkness, or enclosed spaces alone, but all put together – is the greatest strength of Ron Howard’s film. It’s a death-defying, relentlessly uneasy depiction of real-world events that will yank you forward in your seat and pull your heart into your throat. However, as palpable as the anxiety of cave diving can feel at times, the real heavy lifting is done by the existential horror of the mere idea of being trapped underwater. The actual filmmaking hardly ever contributes to the claustrophobia of these scenes, sadly. Thirteen Lives lacks inventive camera work, framing, or staging that really pushes the boundaries of depicting the rescue on screen. Flat, uninspired lighting and less-than-muddy water only draw away from what could have been an outright terrifying visual identity. On top of diluted presentation, fast-cut editing also often makes for a keep-up-the-pace feeling that never lets the full sensations of “Oh, fuck” set in.
In the cave, the film’s sense of geography is painfully limited. The words “third chamber” and other vague landmark terms are repeated, yet they mean just about nothing to the audience. Overlaid graphics of the cave map never quite clearly depict where the divers are, effectively only acting as a kind of progress bar for the plot. The fast editing and restrained staging lessen any in-camera sense of geography as well, but it’s hard to describe that shortcoming without saying “they should have just shot it in the actual cave!” The divers are constantly shown in the same spots in the cave – presumably, because they’re the only sets built or the only safe cave locations they found to shoot in. Although it makes logistical sense, this decision leaves some of the supposedly hardest parts of the cave to be navigated off-screen, a fatal blow to creating the most daunting depiction of the rescue.
Perhaps to its detriment, Thirteen Lives seems obsessed with remaining uber-grounded. The visual aesthetic of the film comes off as shot-on-iPhone with deep focus, minimalistic natural lighting, and wandering compositions. There are a few points where director Ron Howard opts for a less objective lens, allowing the camera to float around characters on a steadicam and push in at random moments. While these shots allude to some sort of stylish inspiration, they stick out like a sore thumb in a film that seems to treat itself more as a documentary than a narrative piece. When last year already saw the successful release of The Rescue, a Nat Geo doc on the same subject, Thirteen Lives feels like a messy, unwarranted retread of familiar ground.
From its production design to Ron Howard’s directorial gaze, Thirteen Lives ironically feels more akin to a documentary-like recreation of events than a narratively refined story with a defining creative voice. Where some of this could be chalked up to Howard’s recent immersion in tragedy-focused documentary projects like We Feed People and Rebuilding Paradise, the film’s screenplay by William Nicholson is the root of many of these issues, focusing on events rather than characters. The main players stand more as caricatures than nuanced people. Volanthen and Stanton are the only subjects with real defined personalities, those being optimist and pessimist respectively, but such simply defined personalities make for less-than-compelling relationships and motivations. Thirteen Lives proclaims its thesis as “love for the boys” being the binding glue of the operation, which feels like an insultingly surface-level take-away for such a complicated, raw tale of selflessness and perseverance.
Similarly, the directorial interest in Volanthen and Stanton feels misguided, when the more complicated and conflicted subjects of Thai locals offer a much more interesting, if less mythological point of view for the story. The script tries to capture this with a B-plot that features a Bangkok-born US citizen that leads a volunteer operation to direct water away from sinkholes that lead into the cave. This never directly ties into the main plot with the divers and winds up feeling more disjointed in the final edit. While it is an inspiring attempt to spotlight the sacrifices of local farmers and townspeople, it doesn’t command the screen with the same strength as the actual rescue. With a little more characterization and a better eye for drama, this side plot could have held its own in an already overlong film.
This is all to ignore the ethical ambiguity that Thirteen Lives chooses to depict a group of European divers as the boys’ saviors and the only ones willing to directly do anything to save them. Though Thirteen Lives does try to contextualize the rescue within the larger scope of local involvement and Thai culture and tradition, its primary focus on the efforts of white saviors feeds an outdated cliche. Furthermore, there is a noticeable gap in the level of empathy with which Thirteen Lives views its Thai characters. Unlike with their European colleagues, when difficulties arise for the Thai SEALs, the scenes merely function to show the dangers of cave diving, not the sacrifices the individual divers are making. It’s a morally questionable, albeit narratively focused, choice that still doesn’t do much to rein in the film’s scope. In the end, the cave rescue comes down to feeling like a four-man mission; the reality of the situation being that it was a much larger, collaborative operation than Thirteen Lives would have you think.
Thirteen Lives marks Ron Howard’s 28th narrative feature, but you would be damn hard pressed to tell. This film feels void of any real, substantial authorship, with interest in the most Western-appealing characters being the only tell. The acting lacks nuance, and story beats rarely develop beyond line readings and exposition dumps – a sin that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from Howard’s more empathetic filmography. There’s an ever-present sense of Howard’s affection for the idea of this rescue mission, in a romanticized view of human selflessness, that drowns away the individual human life-savers, preventing those feelings from manifesting anything meaningful. For a director known for his more dramatic work, Ron Howard’s pivot towards notions of survival and (for lack of a better word) spectacle is disappointing and drags Thirteen Lives down from the limelight of a compelling feature to a middling 142 minutes of breath-holding anxiety.