Movie Review: Thirteen Lives

It was the news story that diverted the world’s attention away from the World Cup. On June 23, 2018, twelve boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their football coach decided to explore the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand, located close to the border with Burma. For these kids, going into the cave was nothing new to them. It was their backyard playground and that June, one month before the summer monsoon rains typically arrive, the cave was open for visitors. That year, however, was different. The rains came unexpectedly early and, on that day, when the rainwaters rushed into the cave, the boys and their coach suddenly found themselves trapped two kilometers inside with no way out. When the kids failed to return home for a birthday party that was organised for one of them, the parents alerted the authorities and the Thai Army and Navy SEALs were quickly mobilized. News of the incident reached John Volanthen (Colin Farrell, THE BATMAN; WIDOWS) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen, FALLING; GREEN BOOK), two middle-aged recreational cave divers living in the UK, who quickly grabbed their gear and flew to the location. When they dove inside the cave, they expected to find 13 dead bodies but, amazingly, the boys and their coach were still alive, a little worse for wear but eager to get home to their families. The only problem was that getting them out alive was impossible. Diving for five hours, untrained and in a weakened state, in near-zero visibility, wriggling through cramped spaces was just not going to work. That fact hit home when a retired Navy SEAL drowned while trying to exit the cave. Volanthen and Stanton needed to come up with a viable solution and fast before the boys ran out of oxygen, starved, got sepsis or all three. For that they enlisted another cave diving friend, Australian doctor Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton, RED SPARROW). Their solution was controversial, unethical and probably illegal but it was the least awful option they had to get the boys out alive. This harrowing story has now been retold in director Ron Howard’s (HILLBILLY ELEGY; A BEAUTIFUL MIND) new film, THIRTEEN LIVES.

The two-time Oscar winner knows a thing or two about making films about heroes and impossible situations. Just as he did with APOLLO 13 and BACKDRAFT, you will find yourself holding your breath as Volanthen and Stanton slowly make their way through the narrow tunnels while the muddy water crashes into them. After getting some training from real cave divers, both Farrell and Mortensen insisted on doing their own stunt dives for the film. I dive but I’ve never done cave diving. After watching this film, I don’t think I want to try it. You have to have nerves of steel for that sport.

THIRTEEN LIVES isn’t the first film on these boys. National Geographic Documentary Films produced THE RESCUE, a documentary that came out in 2021. Though the two films cover the same ground, there are some interesting differences between them that makes both worth watching. The documentary focuses more on the divers with numerous talking head interviews giving the audience a play-by-play account of the rescue operation while the dramatization sheds some light on all the others who were involved in the operation too, including the local Thai farmers who agreed to have their rice fields flooded out by the rain that was diverted by a hardworking team of volunteers situated on the top and on the slopes of the mountain. THIRTEEN LIVES is also very respectful of the Thais, which is welcome change from so many Hollywood films where foreigners are an easy target for ridicule. Here, the Thais are shown to be competent, resourceful, willing and able and, most of all, deeply religious. There are no bad guys here trying to undermine the success of the rescue. Everyone is on the same page, and that certainly played a big part in the operation’s outcome. What’s missing from both films, however, is how the boys and their coach managed to survive so long without any food and clean drinking water. Both films do mention that the coach practiced meditation with the boys, which no doubt was hugely instrumental in calming nerves and reducing oxygen intake but it couldn’t have been smooth sailing all day, every day. Regardless of how those days in the darkness went down, the boys showed incredible bravery even before they became what was referred to as “precious cargo”.

THIRTEEN LIVES is available now on Amazon Prime Video. THE RESCUE is streaming on Disney+. Even knowing how the story ends, you will be watching both with your heart in your mouth. Keep the box of Kleenex nearby.

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