MiNDFOOD Reviews: ‘Thirteen Lives’, Ron Howard’s cinematic take on the Thai cave rescue

By Gill Canning

Colin Farrell as John Volanthen, Paul Gleeson as Jason Mallison and Thira 'Aum' Chutikul as Commander Kiet in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film.

Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

© 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Colin Farrell as John Volanthen, Paul Gleeson as Jason Mallison and Thira 'Aum' Chutikul as Commander Kiet in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
A captivating real-life rescue is disappointingly less engrossing on the big screen.

Like many around the world, I was transfixed by the events of June 2018, when 12 young boys and their soccer coach became trapped in a Thai cave by unseasonal monsoon flooding. The fact that their visit to the local Tham Luang Nang Non cave after soccer practice morphed within hours to an event that looked set to see multiple casualties was unnerving and upsetting. The subsequent convergence of thousands of volunteers and global media on the park surrounding the cave created a movie-like feel. As the drama stretched for more than two weeks and oxygen levels in the cave began to drop dangerously low, fears for the boys’ safety naturally grew. And when two Aussie cave divers seconded to help the rescue effort became pivotal to the rescue of all 12 boys, I cried along with many others I knew.

Several Thai Navy SEALS and international divers helped locate and bring the children out but the man who made it possible to transport each child along a treacherous three-hour underwater journey with poor visibility and choppy currents was South Australian anaesthetist and diver, Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Harris. Only by sedating each child to the state of unconsciousness, could they be safely pulled through the cave’s challenging, often very narrow route. As seen in director Ron Howard’s new film, Thirteen Lives, it was a plan Harris did not initially support but came to realise was the only shot at getting the boys out alive. 

Thirteeen Lives was filmed largely on the Gold Coast in Queensland, and I am glad for the sake of the Australian film industry that Howard chose the region as a stand-in for Thailand, although some local filming was also done. As a fan of Howard’s films (including Cocoon, Parenthood, The Paper and Apollo 13), I expect a lot from his movies but I feel this is not one of his best. The set design and the underwater depiction of the caves and of the challenging four-kilometre route from the outside world to the stranded boys is impressive, as you would expect. As someone with slight claustrophobia, the underwater rescue scenes were suitably unsettling, especially since the lead actors did all their own diving scenes. But ultimately, the movie did not engross me in the way the real story did. And for a director as experienced as Howard, with every movie-making trick and some of the best technical and creative people in the world at his disposal, it should have. 

Director Ron Howard on the set of THIRTEEN LIVES, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The film is over-long (at 2.5 hours, a half hour at least could and should have been trimmed) and rarely reaches the level of suspense you might expect from such a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale. I feel it would have benefitted from letting the audience spend some time with the boys in the cave, understanding how they coped with their emotions and fear. Instead, 95% of the film takes place outside the cave and unfortunately, in the leading role of British diver, Rick Stanton, Viggo Mortensen consistently over-acts. Colin Farrell as his sidekick, diver John Volanthen, is only marginally better. Even the usually reliable Joel Edgerton as Dr Richard Harris, is disappointing –but a lot of this is down to the script which is at times plodding, repetitive or cheesy Hollywood-speak dialogue. 

Characterisation is scant and shallow and I never felt that I really got to ‘know’ any of the characters – above or below ground. A better understanding of the emotions experienced by the boys’ young coach, Ekapol Chanthawong  (who apparently felt immense guilt for entering the cave with the boys, but who was venerated by their parents for his care for them) would have helped. I feel the performances of the Thai actors portraying the trapped boys’ parents, including Pattrakorn Tungsupakul as the mum of Chai, one of the youngest boys, largely outshine their Western colleagues. Indeed, the scene where the tireless villagers who spent days helping to divert rain that is pouring down sink holes into the flooded cave system are told that all the boys are safely out, was the only scene to bring a tear to my eye. 

If you were undertaking a self-imposed media blackout in June 2018 and are not familiar with this extraordinary story of bravery and international co-operation by an estimated 10,000 people, then Thirteen Lives is worth seeing. For everyone else, technically competent though this film is, I feel Howard dropped the ball a little. Hopefully his next venture will be back to the standard we’ve come to expect.

Thirteen Lives will be available to stream on Amazon Prime in Australia and New Zealand from Friday, 5 August.

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