Ron Howard is no stranger when it comes to directing movies about people facing incredible odds of survival. In 1995 he launched audiences into space with Apollo 13. With his latest effort, Thirteen Lives, he plunges the audience into the dark muddy waters of a flooding cave.
Thirteen Lives is based on the real-life Tham Luan cave rescue mission from back in 2018. The film begins with a boys’ soccer team and their coach visiting the local Tham Luan Cave after practice. Things take a turn for the worse when the yearly monsoon arrives earlier than expected, flooding the cave, and thus trapping the team inside with no way of getting out. After an initial rescue attempt by the local authorities, a worldwide operation is put in place to find the team, keep them alive, and ultimately bring them back to safety.
Howard wastes no time setting the stage, as all of the recap mentioned occurs within the first 15 minutes. What follows is an 18-day race to improvise a plan for rescuing the team. With every solution arises a new complication for a situation that has no precedent on how to solve. With little dialogue, Howard does an excellent job using images instead of lengthy dialogue to communicate just how dire the situation is. At the beginning of the movie, we see the Thai NAVY Seals arrive at the cave to initiate the search with the boys’ parents present. With the audience not knowing much else, Howard shows the rescue team preparing their diving gear. With that scene and a simple line of dialogue, the message is clear: there is little hope for those 13 lives.
An even greater achievement is the way Howard maintains gut-wrenching tension even though the events happened only 4 years ago. The rescue mission was covered extensively, and the outcome is well known, but Howard manages to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. The director, along with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, submerges the camera into the murky cave waters. This creates a dreadful feeling of claustrophobia as the dive teams wiggle and squeeze through narrow passages making their way through the cave system. The muffled underwater sounds of breathing and of air tanks slamming against cave walls create anxious moments. The cloudy images of panicked, concerned looks through diving masks and the sight of knuckles receiving new abrasions with every reach forward add to an already angsty viewing experience.
The film delivers these elements in a subdued manner. Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson present the story as it was, more concerned with facts than fanfare. There are no moments with heroic crescendo music, no characters that stand out more than others, no moments of valorous inspiration, nor any moments of devastating tragedy. When all is said and done, relief is the dominant sentiment.
The result is a biopic perhaps unlike any Ron Howard has ever made, void of any extreme dramatization. The cast, led by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as rescue divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, also give nuanced performances to positive effect. Just like their real-life counterparts understood the importance of not letting emotion get in the way of the mission, so do the actors employ stoicism in their performance. Joining Rick and John in the mission are Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton), an anesthetist, and divers Jason Mallison (Paul Gleeson) and Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman). The emotional pulse of the movie is held by actress Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, who plays Buahom, one of the parents whose child is trapped in the cave. Throughout the duration of the movie Tungsupakul does an excellent job representing the despair, grief, hope, frustration, bravery, and faith these parents must have experienced for 18 excruciating days.
Thirteen Lives is not a movie that will change the genre, or that will climb the ranks of Howard’s filmography. It is a solid take on a series of occurrences where thousands of people worldwide came together to volunteer their skills and knowledge to accomplish the near-impossible task of saving 12 children and their coach. Once the audience is back from the edge of their seats, the realization should be clear: it is miraculous what a united world can achieve.