‘Thirteen Lives’ Review: Ron Howard’s No-Frills Cave Rescue Drama Has Too Much Air, Too Little Depth

Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell star in a ho-hum Hollywood dramatization of an incredible story that has been told better before.
Thirteen Lives Review: Ron Howard's Cave Rescue Drama Has Too Much Air
"Thirteen Lives"

It’s been less than a year since “Free Solo” directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin debuted the “The Rescue,” a remarkable documentary about the international effort to safely extract 12 young boys and their soccer coach from deep within a flooded Thailand cave system in the summer of 2018. Filled with impeccable recreations that were performed by the actual divers involved, the film was (and remains) so heart-in-your-throat harrowing that it seemed destined to endure as the definitive telling of this story. As I wrote in my review at the time: “‘The Rescue’ is intense enough that even Michael Bay and Peter Berg should recognize that no mega-budget dramatization could match up to it.”

For Ron Howard, it was already too late. A showbiz veteran whose generosity of spirit and affinity for peril have always tended to strengthen each other in the service of triumphant disaster movies like “Apollo 13,” he was probably compelled by the cave rescue from the moment it happened, and definitely well into post-production on his own version of events by the time Chin and Vasarhelyi’s film came to light.

Told with no frills, less personality, and just enough quiet dignity to sustain itself for 18 days (or 147 minutes), Howard’s serviceable “Thirteen Lives” is a far cry from the kind of souped-up spectacle some of his Hollywood contemporaries might create out of this material. And yet, its let the story speak for itself approach feels misjudged in the aftermath of a documentary so rich with big personalities, knotted with stomach-churning suspense, and shadowed by a lingering sense of ethical ambivalence.

Where “The Rescue” was a non-fiction thriller about the weight of our mutual obligation to each other and the complications of trying to shoulder it in the midst of a crisis, “Thirteen Lives” is a somber (if death-defying) Viggo Mortensen drama about some handsome white men who try not to act like movie stars when they show up in a foreign country and get tasked with saving the day.

If the value that “Thirteen Lives” offers people who’ve seen “The Rescue” is negligible to the point of being non-existent, Howard’s movie obviously deserves to be judged on its own merits, and even viewers unfamiliar with the Tham Luang cave saga will be at least a little gripped by how it’s presented here. The story it tells is incredible enough to survive any deficiencies in the telling, and Howard is far too competent a filmmaker to interfere with its basic power.

Still, “Thirteen Lives” often seems engrossing in spite of itself. From the moment it starts, the film is wrapped in the gauzy nonchalance of a movie that’s trying to get out of its own way. There’s a sense of predestination to how casually Howard follows the Wild Boars soccer team into the caves, as William Nicholson’s screenplay focuses our attention on the smallest boy so that we have an emotional foothold later (it comes by its details honestly, most of them as innocent and heartbreaking as a SpongeBob SquarePants birthday cake). The parents get concerned when their kids don’t come home, the outgoing Chiang Rai governor — played by Sahajak Boonthanakit in a vaguely defined role made fascinating by the balance it strikes between political opportunism and genuine concern — sets up a crisis center, and time begins dripping away like the water flooding into the Tham Luang caves from the sinkholes above.

Time soon becomes almost as much of a problem for “Thirteen Lives” as it is for the people in it. The days skip forward with little sense of escalation, and the film’s parallel subplots — the most impactful of which highlights the local farmers who agreed to sacrifice their crops in order to aid the rescue effort — seldom feel like they’re happening simultaneously. Even before a pair of weary, middle-aged British cave divers arrive on the scene in the span of a single cut (Howard limits their personal histories to a single pre-trip phone call), this story is already lacking an air of desperation, and its disjointedness is never resolved with enough care to make it seem like a deliberate foil for the film’s celebration of the communal spirit.

Which isn’t to suggest that “Thirteen Lives” overplays the individual heroism that made the rescue possible, or that it falls into the usual Hollywood trap of elevating Western do-gooders above the foreign people they deign to save. The fact that a 60-year-old retired firefighter from Essex (Mortensen as Rick Stanton) and a Bristol-based IT consultant (Colin Farrell as John Volanthen) helped lead the Tham Luang operation certainly makes this episode more appealing to the English-speaking world, but Nicholson’s script also takes pains to highlight the efforts of the Chiang Rai locals, the Thai Royal Navy, and the U.S. Air Force, and to depict all of the parties involved in the best possible light.

If anything, Howard’s film is so afraid of making this into Stanton and Volanthen’s story that it nearly flattens them into non-characters just to ensure that they don’t overpower the rest of the ensemble. How else to explain Mortensen’s decision to play Rick — in real life a goofy Herzogian introvert with a supernatural talent for cave-diving and a dark sense of humor that reflects the bizarre comfort he finds in dark places — as a sullen and severe grumpus who doesn’t seem to have faith in his own abilities?

Farrell fares better as the more personable and optimistic Volanthen (the reformed bad boy reverberating with the same downcast dignity that made his recent performance in “After Yang” so powerful), but each of these men is crushed by the sheer weight of their mission that it doesn’t leave much space for anything else. While John is shown to have a son who’s around the same age as the Wild Boars, the simple acknowledgment of that fact is our only insight into what might be going through his head. The actual rescue was obviously a somber affair, but even the astronauts trapped inside Apollo 13 were given more room to breathe.

The silver lining to such muted characterizations is that they call greater attention to the burden that Rick and John assume just by virtue of showing up; the obligation they felt to be there goes unexplored (it can’t be easy to know that you’re one of the only people on Earth with the skills required to save a few strangers on the other side of the world), but “Thirteen Lives” keys into the slippery metrics of the mission’s success once the operation is underway. When Rick and John first roll up to the cave, it seems like they’d be heroes for rescuing even a single boy. When the entire soccer team is found alive — albeit in a chamber of the cave so difficult to reach that their deaths still seem inevitable — it suddenly becomes clear that Rick and John will be held responsible if they fail to rescue all of them.

While Howard’s film derives most of its tension from the planning and logistics of the various dives, all of which become a lot more complicated once Rick gets the wild idea to recruit an anesthetist named Richard Harris (an endearingly unconvinced Joel Edgerton), “Thirteen Lives” is at its best when navigating the narrow divide that separates a miracle from a fiasco, and saving a life from ending it. The more practical aspects aren’t so well-articulated. While the rescue itself is shot with a straightforward intensity that emphasizes the risk involved, and immersive sound design helps convey the alien hostility of Earth’s deadliest environments, Howard is sometimes reluctant to let his audience share in the panic-inducing claustrophobia that made it so difficult to extract the kids from that cave.

It may have been too much to expect the full Harvard Sensory Ethnography approach, but “Thirteen Lives” needed to more fully confront the sheer hellishness of what divers had to navigate in Tham Luang in order for the movie to resolve as a more stirring reminder that our world may not be as intractable as it seems. It’s why “The Rescue” benefits so much from prioritizing ultra-close intensity over a wider point-of-view; why the more modest of these films radiates with the awe of a genuine miracle, while the big Hollywood production has to settle for the feeling of a job well done.

Grade: C+

United Artists Releasing will open “Thirteen Lives” in select theaters on Friday, July 29. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, August 5.

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