The 33 (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Trapped 700 meters underground for 69 days

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Based on a dramatic real-life story which drew lots of public attention around the world in 2010, “The 33” attempts to give us a close, vivid look into that extremely risky period. As many of you remember, 33 miners of the San José copper–gold mine in Chile were really trapped 700 meters (around 2,300 ft) underground for no less than 69 days, and it is quite miraculous that they all were rescued in the end despite their very slim chance in the beginning. While their remarkable story is worthwhile to be told, the movie itself is deficient in its focus and narrative momentum, and its weak aspects are not wholly compensated by its good parts to notice.

The early scenes of the film introduce several notable members in the group as looking around their mining area located in the Atacama Desert, and they look pretty much like conventional characters for disaster drama, though they are probably not so far from their real-life counterparts. While one young rookie miner has a wife who is soon going to give birth to their child, there is an old-timer who is about to retire, and then there are also 1) a dependable family man dearly loved by his wife and daughter, 2) a diligent shift foreman dedicated to his work and duty 3) an alcoholic bum who has been estranged from his sister for years, 4) a husband currently (and openly) sandwiched between his wife and mistress, 5) a Bolivian lad who is not so welcomed by other miners, and 6) an Elvis impersonator.

When they and other miners go to their workplace as usual in the morning of August 5th, 2010, it looks like just another usual day in their 121-year-old mine which has been riskier during recent years. We watch their long underground route winding down toward the lowest part of their workplace, and we are informed that it is higher than 30℃ in this underground sector. They are well aware of the dangers in their work environment, but they are willing to work there as long as they get paid enough to support their families.

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Not long after the foreman finds the serious signs of the impending disaster, the mine is eventually collapsed during that afternoon. All of 33 miners who could not escape from the mine at that time fortunately survive the collapse, but they find themselves being stuck in their refuge spot. While a big diorite rock completely blocks the mine route, they do not have enough food, and, to make matters worse, there is not even any possible way of communicating with the outside.

As the miners are worrying about the worst situation they may have to accept in the end, the movie observes the circumstance unfolded on the ground. As the news of the accident is quickly spread through media, many concerned family members come to the mine for demanding prompt actions for saving their loved ones, and Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), the Minister of Mining of Chile, decides to handle the situation for himself under the reluctant permission of President Sebastián Piñera (Bob Gunton). While he does not have much experience or knowledge for supervising the rescue mission, Golborne tries his best in handling the media and the trapped miners’ family members, and his chief engineer André Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne) and other crew members race against the time as trying to drill correctly to where miners are trapped.

The miners are relieved to learn that there is still a chance for their survival, but the situation remains gloomy for them as Sourgarret points out to Golborne during one brief scene. Anything can go terribly wrong during that tricky drilling process, and they may be too late for the miners even if they succeed at last. As time goes by, the miners become more desperate, and so do their families, who are patiently waiting outside the mine with growing dread.

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The movie works best when it focuses on the miners’ urgent situation in the underground, and the director Patricia Riggen did an effective job of establishing the gloomy claustrophobic atmosphere encompassing the miner characters in the film, who look believable in their weary appearances smeared with sweat and grime. While recognizable actors such as Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips naturally draw our attention more, they are mostly mingled well with their fellow actors, and these cast members’ ensemble work functions as the solid ground to support the film.

However, the screenplay by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, Michael Thomas, and José Rivera, which is based on the nonfiction book “Deep Down Dark” by Héctor Tobar, begins to lose its focus as well as the sense of urgency especially after a major breakthrough point in the middle of the rescue mission process. The part involved with the media sensation surrounding the accident is clumsy and half-baked, and the expected climax is a mere reproduction of what happened during that dramatic moment on October 13th, 2010. The movie is also hampered frequently by its thin characterization, and it is disappointing to see talented performers like Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Bob Gunton, James Brolin, and Gabriel Byrne stuck with bland thankless roles.

Watching the finale followed by the footage clip of those real-life miners having a meeting together on the beach, I asked myself a variation of critic Gene Siskel’s famous question: “Is this film more interesting than a documentary of these people having lunch?” Although “The 33” is sincere and respectful in its intentions and I like some of its effective parts, my answer is no, but you may watch this run-of-mill disaster drama if you have some free time to spend without regret.

Sidenote: The movie is one of the last works by the composer James Horner, who died due to a sudden plane crash in last year.

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