WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
A rescue mission is assembled in Thailand where a group of young boys and their soccer coach are trapped in a system of underground caves that are flooding.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
In 2018, two big stories dominated that year's headlines - the FIFA World Cup in Russia and the Thai boys' soccer team trapped in a flooded cave. It was a story that not only captured global attention but also saw a rare moment of absolute international cooperation to not only find the 12 boys and their coach but to find a way to get them out alive in a 'war against water'.
It's a story that no screenwriter could improve upon, and Ron Howard's Thirteen Lives doesn't have to take many liberties to prove just how harrowing the ordeal was for everyone involved. It's a claustrophobia-inducing nightmare that feels more like a documentary than a reenactment, thanks to an expansive and realistic water set where the cast had to train for weeks to manoeuvre it themselves. It's unbelievable that the scale of it all was reduced to a little-marketed streaming movie on Prime, but unfortunately, it seems to have fallen victim to post-merger politics (Amazon acquired MGM, which produced it). Judging by other recent streaming decisions, we're lucky we get to see it at all.
If you had been living under a rock in 2018, this is what happened. A soccer team and their coach decided to visit a local tourist cave after their match, not realising that the monsoon had started earlier than expected. When their families went looking for them, the caves had flooded, and they were feared dead. Volunteer cave divers were flown in from all over the world, and they managed to find everyone alive against hope, but with no way to get them out alive, and a race against time as torrential rain kept filling the cave.
You are poised on the edge of your seat from beginning to end despite knowing the story's outcome. Howard is a master at grand suspense, amplified by a studio set made from the stuff of nightmares. While it was helmed by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, both masterful actors who play the lead British cave divers in the rescue, not much acting were really needed in those cave scenes. As someone with an open-water diving license, the idea of diving almost eight hours straight is just mind-numbingly terrifying. If you have any hint of claustrophobia, this film might induce a small panic in most of the scenes. A map of the cave with distances and time was constantly shown throughout to map the divers' journey, putting the whole ordeal into a bleak perspective. Howard wanted his audience to feel like they were in those caves, and he succeeded a little too well.
While the focus was on the lead divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, and eventually the Australian anaesthetist Richard Harry Harris played by another great Joel Edgerton, great care was taken to highlight every effort that went into saving the team. From the locals that redirected water away from the cave and sacrificed their rice fields in the process, to the Thai Navy SEALS, where two lost their lives to the rescue, to the governor having to greenlight the insane operation and take all the blame if anything went wrong. The parents were present but were amalgamated into one key parent played by the capable Thai actor Pattrakorn Tungsupakul. They also highlighted the cool and calm actions of the coach, who was pivotal in keeping his team alive for around 10 days without food. Everything could have gone wrong in this rescue, and watching how prepared the divers were for casualties and the mental toll that took on them was heartbreaking.
My only tiny gripe with Thirteen Lives was the scene where they showed in excruciating detail the death of one of the Navy SEALS - retired diver Saman Kunam. I am always sensitive to reenactments of real people's deaths, and it was so upsetting that I wondered how his family would feel seeing that scene. Everything was already so intense - an offscreen death would still have had a resounding impact on the audience. It was the only time the film veered a little too close to sensationalism. If you're also sensitive, I'd recommend fast-forwarding through this scene - you'll know when it's coming.
Other than that, Thirteen Lives is a riveting account of the cave rescue, and even if you had followed the events closely when they happened, you still wouldn't be prepared for everything that this film reveals. It drives home how much of a modern-day miracle this operation really was and what the world could achieve if we collaborated this well on other global crises that face our planet.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
Thirteen Lives is now streaming on Prime Video.