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Thirteen Lives Review: Underwater And Out Of Its Depth

EDITORS' RATING: 6/10
Pros
  • Captivating real-life drama
  • Powerful performances from Farrell and Mortenson
  • Terrifying underwater sequences
Cons
  • Underdeveloped Thai characters
  • Some emotional moments don't land
  • The boys are thoroughly sidelined

Let's just get this out of the way at the top: "Thirteen Lives" is pretty much an idiot-proof film from a director's standpoint. There's no way it ends up being anything less than compelling, considering that it's based on the incredibly dramatic real-life rescue story that had the entire world in thrall for several weeks against a media landscape where news usually fizzles out after a day or two. 

And to be fair, "Thirteen Lives" provides a faithful adaptation of the events, bringing to life all the real split-second decisions that ultimately made the difference between a staggering success and a heartbreaking tragedy. But it fails in its lack of imagination — director Ron Howard seems uninterested in telling this story from any perspective other than the cave-diving rescuers flown in from Britain and Australia. The end result is a film that keeps the audience's attention but falls strangely flat and unsatisfying in moments where it should be captivating.

Lost in the caves

"Thirteen Lives" begins inauspiciously: A group of young Thai soccer players decide to ride their bikes over to some caves on the edge of their town before a birthday party. The caves are a tourist destination, easy for kids to safely explore as long as it isn't monsoon season, when they flood and become impassible. They've probably all been there dozens of times before without incident. But this time is different: The rains come earlier than usual, and the boys and their soccer coach are trapped in the cave.

A rescue operation unfolds, gripping not just the nation of Thailand but the entire world. The Thai Navy SEALs are on deck, but they just haven't trained for the type of diving that this cave requires, and they aren't able to find the boys. It's only when two hobbyist cave divers, John Valanthon (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortenson), fly in from England to offer their skills that they make any headway. But even if they're able to find the boys in the labyrinthine cave, a whole new problem emerges: how to safely get them out.

Hard to breathe

The greatest strength of "Thirteen Lives" is largely its underwater sequences. The way that it's filmed really highlights what an oppressive and claustrophobic experience it is, deep underwater with barely any light and the constant challenges of orientation and air management, to say nothing of the sheer force of the current working against them. Watching them in some of the more perilous passages almost makes you feel as though you can't quite breathe. Farrell and Mortenson are extremely effective in their roles, calmly and pragmatically trying to assert their expertise in a tense, anxiety-filled environment.

But the main problem here is how heavily dominated "Thirteen Lives" is by their specific perspective. Yes, they're the rescuers, so it makes sense that they occupy a prominent role in the film, but there's something that doesn't quite feel right about how much it relies on their point of view at the expense of basically every single Thai character. It throws the film off-balance, in a way, and makes some of the more emotional moments fall flat. We should see more from the parents of the boys stuck in the cave, the Navy SEALs, and even the boys themselves, who are treated almost like mere vessels for this very dramatic story.

And the most frustrating part of all of this is that we know that Ron Howard knows how to tell a rescue story from multiple perspectives, developing tension by showing the plight of not just the individuals in danger, but the people desperately trying to save them. He's done it before, incredibly effectively, in "Apollo 13." But here, he doesn't seem to know how to tap into the humanity of anyone besides the team of English and Australian rescue divers. And this is a real problem. Aside from a few scenes that more heavily feature the youngest boy's mother, played by Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, the characters seem largely interchangeable. On some level, it's probably difficult to manage a piece like this with so many moving parts, but it feels like a disservice to minimize the role of the Thai characters within their own narrative.

Good, but The Rescue is better

The film works as is — Farrell and Mortenson and Joel Edgerton, who plays another diver, are all excellent. We feel the danger and helplessness as everyone races against time and the impending monsoon season to grasp at straws in an effort to save the boys. There's a poignancy to how much of a long shot they all seem to know this is — no one really expects to save all the boys, and that's what makes the story so moving. But still, there's a sense of how much better it could be if Howard was willing to embrace other characters within the larger narrative. 

The 13 lives the title references might as well be sacks of flour, for all the film cares about developing them. The youngest one, Chai, is easily identifiable, but the others are given so few defining characteristics as to make them essentially interchangeable. The end result is a film that hits all the right beats of a real-life rescue story, but lacks the heart, making it difficult to recommend over its far more effective documentary counterpart, "The Rescue." It may not have the prestigious Hollywood cast or the massive budget, but it somehow manages to capture more of the drama and humanity of this incredible story.

"Thirteen Lives" debuts in select theaters on Friday, July 29 before streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, August 5.