If you’re going to make a movie where everyone knows the ending, you’d better put something into the story that no one already knows. Predictability is just one of the problems with the film, THE 33, which recounts the story of the 33 Chilean and Bolivian miners who were trapped underground for 69 days.
The San José gold and copper mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile was the site of a cave in back in August 2010. When the mountain shifted, as they apparently do, especially in a country like Chile that is located on a geological fault line, the miners became trapped 700 meters underground. Although the mine’s owners were rather quick to write the miners off, the wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters rallied together to push the government to search for their men. (You’ve got to love South American women for their political activism.) They knew how the game would be played though: The government would mount a cursory search for a few days, they would give up and leave, and the world would move on. But that wasn’t the case this time. Because the country had endured a devastating magnitude 8.8 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in February of that year, both public opinion in Chile and the media’s attention were on the women’s side. The government wouldn’t be able to wriggle out of its responsibilities as easily as the mining company did.
Meanwhile, down below, all the men had miraculously survived the cave in but an even worse fate was waiting for them – starvation. They only had enough food for a few days. Fortunately, they were smart enough and optimistic enough to ration it but, when they started out, they had no idea how long the food would have to last. After 17 days and numerous drilling attempts to reach the part of the mine where the rescuers thought the miners would be – if they were alive – contact with the men was made. The challenge for the rescuers then became keeping the men alive and in good spirits long enough for them to be brought to the surface alive.
If this all sounds exciting and heroic, it was. If you were watching TV back then, you saw the events unfold on news channels around the world. Somehow, though, the tension got lost when the story made it onto the big screen. Another problem was the casting, which required everyone to speak English with Chilean-sounding accents. Thrown into the mix were a slew of Spanish-speaking actors hailing from all over the globe, including Spaniard Antonio Banderas, and Chilean Cote de Pablo (TV’s NCIS); Brazilian Rodrigo Santoro (FOCUS), whose accent was no doubt deemed to be “close enough” for audiences not to know the difference; and a handful of non-Spanish speaking actors including French Juliette Binoche (CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA), Filipino Lou Diamond Phillips (LA BAMBA), American Bob Gunton (ARGO) and Irishman Gabriel Byrne who all do a mediocre-at-best job faking it. (Okay, I’ll concede that Phillips’ accent was believable.) Right off the bat, this film would have been better as a low budget, Spanish-language film using South American actors.
Unfortunately, the pain didn’t end with just the accents and the actors. The script was horribly cliché too. Taken from “Deep Down Dark”, the 2014 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Héctor Tobar, the film relies on old-fashioned schmaltz and platitudes, such as Banderas’ character saying “That’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke,” in an attempt to up the emotional stakes. But it just doesn’t work. While the book goes into detail about the men’s living conditions, health and states of mind, the film makes the miners’ ordeal seem like a temporary inconvenience. I am reminded of the Polish film, IN DARKNESS, from a few years back. It’s hard not to feel the claustrophobia, despair and fear that that family must have felt while living in the sewers. So it makes me think that Mexican director, Patricia Riggen, whose biggest hit to date has been her 2008 debut feature, UNDER THE SAME MOON, may just be the source of all the film’s problems. Perhaps she just didn’t have the experience to do justice to the material. In her hands, the incredible story of the 33 men who found the strength to survive against all odds ended up as a tedious Irwin Allen disaster pastiche.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 31:20.)
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