Condensing a rescue mission that took two and half weeks into a film that runs just under two and a half hours long is no easy task. Yet that’s precisely what director Ron Howard has done in Thirteen Lives, conveying the intensity and impossibly high stakes of an international effort to save a group of young soccer players trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. Though most viewers will surely know how this saga ends thanks to its prominence in the news just a few years ago, the film is visceral, tense, and nail-biting for the entirety of its run, simulating a feeling as close as possible to actually being there.
The film opens with twelve boys deciding to venture with their soccer coach into Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand. They have no idea of the increasing waters and weather that will make a return trip by foot impossible, but the ominous music and skies foreshadow that their passage will be far from simple. After that introduction, the boys disappear and are not heard from or seen again until rescue divers mount an intensive effort to reach them and finally do make the connection after hours of diving and multiple attempts. Audiences are forced, like the divers, to wait for confirmation of their safety until after they have endured many breathless and frightening moments where the water level and the complexity of the caves seem strong enough to force them to turn back and abandon the mission altogether.
There is a stream-of-consciousness nature to the storytelling here that makes for an entirely engaging and vivid narrative, pulling in multiple perspectives and piecing them together in a chronological manner that is straightforward and easy to follow. The worried parents go straight to the cave once they realize what has happened, with two parents (Pattrakorn Tungsupakul and Teerawat Mulvilai) showcased most actively as fervent advocates for their missing sons. With their presence established, local government and Navy SEALs arrive, followed by British rescue divers, who appear after an expository phone call and little fanfare. Separate from those efforts, a water engineer embarks on a self-appointed charge to combat the increasing water levels by engaging farmers in the area to close sinkholes and reroute the avalanche of rainwater threatening to make a rescue impossible. Each group serves a particular purpose and function, and remarkable attention is paid to all throughout the film.
There is a tremendous grandeur to this story, and this film adaptation could have easily gone for big stars and forgotten the intimate, cooperative narrative of the real-life events. Instead, Thai actors like Sahajak Boonthanakit, as the governor of the province, who knows that he has been set up as the fall guy should the rescue mission fail, and Thira Chutikul as Commander Kiet, a SEAL not eager to rely on the leadership of foreigners, are featured just as prominently as Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen, who play the Brits, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton. The communal aspect of this mission is mirrored by the film in its equal eye on all facets of its story, with little attention paid to star wattage and a strong reliance on the Thai cast, including the young and talented actors playing the boys.
With a well-received documentary already released (2021’s The Rescue), this film passes the test of validating its existence. Some of its approach is similar, like the onscreen mapping of the cave to indicate the distance between its entrance and where the divers have reached, but its reenactments are substantially longer and more involved. Claustrophobic viewers will surely feel their pulses quicken as one diver realizes he has lost the line and struggles to find the rope again. The camera remains underwater with him, forcing audiences to remain trapped in that moment of panic, and when difficult decisions need to be made based on changing circumstances with available oxygen and the unanticipated responses of those they are trying to help, the sense of urgency and the possibility for devastating consequences is immediately felt. That tension remains potent and unresolved until the very last stage of the operation is complete, at which point audiences will likely be surprised that nearly two and a half hours have passed and they can breathe again.
In presenting what could be described as an action-thriller, Howard manages to mimic the success he had with previous films like Apollo 13 and Rush , both also based on true stories. A deep respect towards all those involved is conveyed, and it also feels distinctly linked to the surrounding culture, particularly in the usage of the wai Thai greeting, which prefaces nearly every interaction in the film, including with the British divers who only speak English. Everyone understands that they are there for one purpose, which is to try to save these boys, and that universal language speaks louder than any miscommunication or cultural barrier. This film captures that sentimentality and uses it to frame its content in a personal, relatable, and ultimately moving way.
Amazon Studios will release Thirteen Lives in select theaters on July 29 then begin streaming on Prime Video August 5.
Photo: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures