Ron Howard has always been fascinated by real life events and heroes. After all, this is the visionary director behind films such as Apollo 13, Rush and A Beautiful Mind, so it’s not a surprise that he would once again turn his gaze towards a major real life incident.
Thirteen Lives is based on the story of a young Thai football team who along with their coach got stuck in a cave after exploring, thanks to the rainfall that made the water levels rise rapidly. The subsequent rescue operation took several days to complete and as the film’s end credits state, over 5000 people from all over the world were involved in the operation.
The film focuses especially on the British drivers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), two volunteers who were experienced in cave diving and rescuing. While Thirteen Lives never feels like it tries to give the story the Hollywood treatment, Howard’s film as well as the individual performances by Mortensen and Farrell and the rest of the cast, feel strangely cold and uninvolved.
The operation itself was somewhat of a miracle. All thirteen footballers were brought out safely and alive, despite the difficult dive that required the team to sedate all of them to guide them out through the narrow passageways, all under water, each dive lasting for hours at a time. While William Nicholson’s script constantly reminds us of the dangers of the caves and the challenging dives, it doesn’t translate visually in Howard’s filmmaking. There’s no real sense of danger or a rush of adrenaline, rendering Thirteen Lives a flaccid drama.
Thirteen Lives lacks urgency, something so present in Apollo 13 and Rush, both also based on real events. At 2 hours and 27 minutes, the film becomes a chore to watch and Howard fails to keep any momentum or tension up. It’s an especially difficult task as we all know how the story ends after it was widely covered by Western media at the time. Our knowledge of the events immediately eats away some of the tension, but Howard makes no effort to try and create more of it.
Despite a very handsome cast that is rounded out by Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman and Sahajak Boonthanakit, the performances feel flat and there are no emotional highs or lows. The death of a diver is well handled and is perhaps the most impressive and harrowing scene in the film, but otherwise, Thirteen Lives fails to get us to engage emotionally.
Mortensen’s accent feels accurate, but Farrell fairs less well with his awful English accent. Both characters lack motivation or passion and Mortensen’s Stanton is your standard no-nonsense British bloke. While it may be true to life, it doesn’t make for a dramatically exciting character that you want to root for.
While cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and editor James Wilcox do their best to try and craft a visually dynamic film, Thirteen Lives never manages to provide any thrills. There’s already two documentaries on the incident, so Howard’s film needs to achieve more than just laying out the facts or guiding us through the events.
It makes for a passive watch and Thirteen Lives severely overstays its welcome and becomes repetitive. For a film about such dramatic events, this is dull and pointless. It’s too long as well as lacking focus, the weight of the events isn’t felt. Perhaps the events would have been better suited for a miniseries which would have allowed for deeper character exploration as well as more time to portray the dives.
Thirteen Lives is in select cinemas exclusively on July 29, 2022, and launch globally on Prime Video on August 5, 2022