Saturday 19 November 2022

Movie Review: Thirteen Lives (2022)

A survival and rescue drama, Thirteen Lives recreates the extraordinary international effort to find and save youth footballers trapped in grim circumstances.

The setting is 2018 in northern Thailand. Members of a youth soccer team and their coach visit the Tham Luang cave, consisting of a complex series of tunnels and chambers deep beneath a mountain. An early monsoon causes flooding and traps the boys. After their parents raise the alarm, the local governor arrives and a Navy SEAL team conducts a search but is forced to turn back. To ease the flood levels, a government worker organizes volunteers to start diverting water away from the mountain's sinkholes.

Within a few days, British expert cave divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) arrive to help. After a difficult hours-long dive they locate the boys alive in a chamber more than 2.5 kilometres into the cave. But it's impossible for the trapped kids to navigate the dangerous flooded tunnels back to safety. With days ticking by, oxygen levels dropping, and more rain forthcoming, Richard proposed a dangerous solution involving Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), an expert Australian cave diver who also happens to be an anaesthetist.

Based on real events that earned international headlines, Thirteen Lives recreates the barely organized chaos of experts coming together for a humanitarian cause. The event's recency and the well-known outcomes rob some tension out of the movie, but this is a nevertheless well-constructed, high-quality production. The William Nicholson screenplay covers the events of June and July 2018 from several angles, with director Ron Howard taking a deep 147 minute breath and wisely using the time to sidestep white saviour clich├ęs.

Plenty of scenes feature only Thai dialogue with subtitles, and prominent local figures include the region's governor, the SEAL team leader, the government worker diverting water away from the caves, the mother of one player, and the team coach. They all play a role in ensuring all efforts are expended in the face of an unprecedented heart-aching drama. Howard also excels in recreating the bustle of the mud-drenched tent city which springs up outside the cave to house parents, the media, rescue workers, and support volunteers.

John Volanthen and Richard Stanton are highlighted from among the expert international cave divers who arrive to help. Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen provide both men the gritty tranquility necessary for a dangerous hobby, but also distinct personalities. Farrell's Volanthen is the optimistic peacemaker, while Mortensen's Stanton is the realist innovator.

Howard spends a lot of time underwater, and Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom conveys the dark, murky, and potentially deadly claustrophobia and disorientation of water-filled twisty passageways barely wide enough for one diver. The exhaustion is palpable, and any climactic euphoria will be both well earned and subdued by extreme fatigue.

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