By Diana Beechener
In June 2018, 12 members of a Thai soccer team and their assistant coach decided to explore the local Tham Luang caves as a treat before a birthday party. An hour later, parents at the party started to wonder where their children were.
Unseasonably heavy rains had caused flooding in the caves, trapping the team 2 kilometers inside the mountain. With monsoon season just around the corner and water levels rising quickly, the Thai government asked for help.
What they got, however, was a miracle in the form of divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen: Crimes of the Future) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell: The Batman).
On paper, the duo doesn’t seem that miraculous: Rick is a retired firefighter and John is an IT consultant. But it’s what they do for fun that makes them unique. They are part of a very small international community that specializes in underwater cave rescues. For fun, they squeeze into barely passable caves, either to save people or retrieve bodies.
Rick and John are accustomed to claustrophobic underwater dives but the environment at Tham Luang is different. The small caves have incredibly fast currents and unstable walls. Rock falls and muddy water make traversing even a few meters incredibly dangerous.
Rick and John are determined. They work with Thai Navy SEALS and the local government to traverse the cave system. Above them, teams of engineers and volunteers work to divert the water that’s rushing into the cave. Around them, the desperate parents hold a vigil, hoping to see their boys again.
Will the team find the boys? And worse, if they find them, how on Earth will they get them out?
Based on the true story of the amazing rescue operation to save kids trapped in a rapidly filling cave, Thirteen Lives is a tense drama about the perseverance of humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. Director Ron Howard (Hillbilly Elegy) is no stranger to the disaster rescue genre. One of his best films, Apollo 13, is an excellent example. He’s in fine form here, too, offering an exacting look at just how much effort it took to save the soccer team. Though the film clocks in at a hefty two and a half hours, most of the time flies by as the film ratchets up the tension and stakes with nearly every scene.
Part of the brilliance of the movie is the cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Beckett), who captures exactly how stifling the cave system is. We watch as divers must take their oxygen tanks off their backs and shove them through narrow tunnels, groping blindly around stalactites as they fight the currents. I found myself gnawing on my fingernails instead of popcorn as the divers shimmied through openings barely large enough to fit them.
Howard breaks the tension with a bit of great character work from Mortensen and Farrell. Though Rick and John seem to be all business, they know the odds of finding the boys alive, let alone saving them, are slim. Every time they’re given a bit of hope, it almost makes their job harder, because the crushing knowledge that they could fail grows. The actors do a wonderful job juggling the sort of daredevil persona needed for such a challenging dive, and the emotional consequences of being an underwater cave rescue diver.
The film is, however, a little light on the Thai side of things. The rescue operation that came together to save the soccer team was immense, with volunteers from all over the globe coming to help. Howard’s film focuses mostly on the divers and the soccer team, as a function of the drama (and running time) but skimps on exactly how much the Thai government and its people sacrificed to attempt this astounding rescue. If you’re looking for more information about this incredible story, consider checking out the impeccable documentary The Rescue (available on Disney+), which fills in a few of the film’s gaps.
A gripping movie that will definitely make you reconsider scuba diving on your next vacation, Thirteen Lives is ultimately an uplifting movie about what the world can accomplish if we work together. It’s a great message and one that we could all probably heed.
Thirteen Lives is on Amazon Prime.
Good Drama * PG-13 * 147 mins.