“We Do Nothing, We’ll Be Bringing Them Out Dead for Sure. But, if They Die While We’re Bringing Them Out, at Least We Will Have Tried.” – Rick Stanton
Suspenseful, meticulous and gripping, Thirteen Lives is a diverting, claustrophobic drama/thriller and a hidden gem of the straight-to-streaming releases of 2022. Offering an incomplete yet engrossing dramatisation of an incredible true-to-life tale, Thirteen Lives succeeds in recounting the real story of a global effort to rescue a Thai soccer team who became entrapped in a flooding cave system in 2018. And while some aspects of the film appear rather drab, thanks to director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Solo: A Star Wars Story) and his somewhat vanilla style of filmmaking, it’s an immersive and engaging recount, nonetheless.
Plot Summary: Faced with insurmountable odds, a team of the world’s most proficient divers navigate a treacherous maze of flooded, narrow cave tunnels in an attempt to rescue a Thai soccer team of twelve children and their coach after they become trapped in the Tham Luang cave in Thailand following an unexpected rainstorm…
Even though the real story behind Thirteen Lives has been recounted before, most notably in the National Geographic documentary, The Rescue, released in 2021. Thirteen Lives is a similarly fact-based account that holds true to what really occurred, rarely playing with the details to manipulate the audience’s emotions or adhere to a more conventional story structure. The film even retains the involvement of numerous countries in the almost three-week-long rescue as, in reality, multiple nations took part alongside Thailand, such as Australia, Denmark, Japan, China, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Great Britain and the United States. In fact, around ten thousand people contributed to the rescue effort, including more than one hundred divers, nine hundred police officers, two thousand soldiers and numerous volunteers.
Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman and Paul Gleeson portray written interpretations of the actual heroes who ventured into Tham Luang cave, portraying them as modest and down-to-Earth and never representing them as hero-like archetypes, despite their unquestionably brave actions. Unfortunately, however, the screenplay doesn’t do so well at detailing who the individuals are outside of their adept diving skills, which is inexcusable given the film’s rather excessive runtime. The only specific trait any of the divers exhibit is their distinctly British obsession with Custard Creams, which I’m assuming was written into the screenplay to make the divers seem more relatable.
Similar to the rest of Ron Howard’s filmography, the cinematography throughout the film is rather bland, as cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom largely falls back on hand-held close-ups and mid-shots. Yet, in spite of that, the film usually thrives visually due to its enveloping set design and dim lighting, which make the submerged cave tunnels appear tight, precarious and dingy. For many of these scenes, Mukdeeprom actually used the actors themselves as a lighting source, requesting them to lift their heads and look around after delivering a line to throw some light into the cave. This technique (and others) helped with lighting the sets, which were built in an enormous hangar-sized studio using double Olympic-size water tanks. The film also employs an array of on-screen schematics to visually inform the audience of what segment of the cave the children/divers are currently in, as well as text to notify the audience of how much time has passed between certain scenes on account of the film covering most of the three-week-long rescue.
Through tracks like Tham Luang, Rain, Dive and Oxygen, the original score by Benjamin Wallfisch predominantly defies musical norms as the filmmakers sought to avoid overly sentimental or manipulative pieces when it came to the soundtrack, concentrating instead on using the score as a tool of abstraction and disorientation. Interestingly, Ron Howard initially sought to work with his collaborator of many years, Hans Zimmer, who subsequently recommended Wallfisch for the project as he was preoccupied. Together Howard and Wallfisch hashed through strategic approaches to the score over several months, seeking ways to incorporate Thai influences and experimental electronic suspense techniques. All to the score’s benefit, I might add. With that said, a few scenes do suffer due to the original score’s presence, where I feel atmospheric sound design would’ve been far more effective.
In regard to realism, professional diver, Rick Stanton, praised the film’s accuracy, stating that one of the only cinematic changes was that the cave water was muddy. In reality, the divers had zero visibility, but “That Would Be Impossible to Demonstrate Because Then the Viewers Would Not See Anything.” Furthermore, the young actors portraying the trapped Thai soccer team were all cast from Northern Thailand, so if they wound up improvising any dialogue the unique dialect and accent would be authentic. This emphasis on accuracy is always something I admire when it comes to adapting true stories, and Thirteen Lives is no exception.
In summary, Thirteen Lives is a predominantly compelling drama/thriller with its own unique selection of minor flaws. While the first half of the film feels like it’s simply treading water, waiting for its tense final act. The second half is a riveting depiction of a daring, foolhardy rescue, capturing much of the same fear, confusion and determination the actual divers must have felt during those fateful few weeks in 2018. As such, even if you already know how the story ends, Thirteen Lives largely prevails in plunging its audience into a submerged rescue scenario. Rating: 7/10.