Ron Howard’s last three movies — Inferno (2016), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and Hillbilly Elegy (2020) — were all consecutive disappointments that I figured he’s no longer the same director he used to be back in his heyday. But his latest directorial effort in Thirteen Lives proves that Howard still has what it takes to make a solid movie based on a true story, which is easily his best one since Rush in 2013.
The title in question refers to the 12 boys and their coach of the Thai junior soccer team, who were all trapped deep inside Tham Luang Nan Non on June 23, 2018, due to the unexpectedly severe rainstorm that flooded the cave system. The news about the subsequent 18-day search-and-rescue mission became one of the biggest stories that shocked the world at the time.
In this dramatisation of the incredible true story, Ron Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Everest) sets up the movie efficiently from the get-go, as the two quickly establish the unity, harmony and friendship between the soccer team and their coach (James Teeradon Supapunpinyo). Following the otherwise ordinary day of soccer practice, they decided to spend their time exploring the Tham Luang Nan Non before the eventual downpour happens.
With the team trapped inside the cave, the boys’ parents begin to worry about their safety and it doesn’t take long before the local authorities led by the governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) implement a search-and-rescue operation with the help of Thai Navy SEALs. However, the rescue effort turns out to be more difficult than expected. This leads to a call for international help, where two experienced British cave divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) are among the volunteers who travel all the way to join the rescue operation.
Meanwhile, local volunteers led by water engineer Thanet (Nophand Boonyai) are trying their best to divert rainwater from continuously flooding the cave. As the days go by with seemingly pessimistic outcomes, Richard and John decided to call in for more help including Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson) and Dr Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton). The latter is particularly summoned due to his expertise in anaesthesia after Richard has a crazy idea of wanting him to sedate the team so they can dive them out of the kilometres-long cave like “packages”.
Clocking at 147 minutes, I was initially worried that Thirteen Lives is going to be one of those overlong fact-based survival dramas flooded with obligatory melodramatic moments. Thankfully, this isn’t the case as Howard smartly eschews the typical Hollywood melodrama approach in favour of realistic, matter-of-fact narrative beats. I like the way he and Nicholson focus not only on the British cave divers’ key efforts in saving the team but also on the Thai Navy SEALs, the governor and of course, the boy’s families without making the story feel heavy-handed. This all-around storytelling perspective also helps to prevent Thirteen Lives from being unfairly treated as a one-sided true story about how white saviours are the centre of attention.
The movie also benefits from a terrific ensemble cast, notably Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell’s perfectly subdued performances as Richard Stanton and John Volanthen. The former particularly delivers one of the best performances in his acting career — a redeeming factor after giving us such a dreadful act in David Cronenberg’s train wreck of a sci-fi body horror in Crimes of the Future. The onscreen chemistry between Mortensen and Farrell is just as great, especially their contrasting personalities: one is rather impassive and the other’s more optimistic by comparison.
Equally worth mentioning are the rest of the strong supporting roles, namely Joel Edgerton as Dr Harry Harris and Nophand Boonyai as the determined water engineer Thanet.
The technical aspects of the movie are top-notch. Kudos go to Howard and his crew for painstakingly re-creating the feel and look of the true-story event that is mostly filmed in Queensland, which turns out to be a convincing stand-in for northern Thailand. Howard reportedly wanted to shoot Thirteen Lives on location in Thailand itself but the COVID-19 pandemic restriction prevented him from doing so. As a result, he and his crew (including production designer Molly Hughes) built tanks and tunnels and turned them into a specially-built cave set resembling a cave system. Come Oscar time, it would be a crime not to have Molly Hughes nominated for Best Production Design.
Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom deserves equal praise for the underwater shots and so does the outdoor location. Howard knows well how to create claustrophobic tension during some of the cave rescue moments, particularly during the gripping final third act. And he successfully does so without being too showy while he doesn’t rely heavily on the music score but instead, opts for the impeccable sound design to level up the suspense. Even with the sparing use of the music score, composer Benjamin Wallfisch does a great job not overpowering the movie to the point it sounds intrusive.
To keep up with the realistic approach and authenticity of this movie, the actors performed most of the cave-diving stunts and their physically-demanding contributions made Thirteen Lives all the more palpable experience.
If there are any flaws, some of the scenes feel either perfunctory or incomplete (a brief moment involves one of the mothers of the trapped child played by Pattakorn Tungsupakul addressing her worries to the governor about their family being “stateless” comes to mind). But such flaws are mostly forgiven, given the overall better-than-expected result that Howard pulls off pretty well in Thirteen Lives.
Thirteen Lives is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.