Ron Howard’s new film “Thirteen Lives”, which is now available on Amazon Prime, attempts to give us a close look into the events of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, and it succeeds to some degree despite its several inherent weak aspects. Although most of us know well the eventual outcome of that dramatic rescue operation, the movie did a fairly good job of presenting its real-life story with some attention and care besides generating enough tension and suspense for us, and that compensates for its rather redundant existence in my inconsequential opinion.
At the beginning, the movie shows us what happened on June 23rd, 2018 in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. After doing some afternoon practice on that day, 12 boys of a local junior association football team and their coach decide to spend some free time in the cave before going to the upcoming birthday party of one of these 12 members, and they are not so worried because the monsoon season has not begun yet, but, alas, it begins to rain earlier than expected not long after they entered the cave together. Several hours later, the parents of the boys are naturally worried as the boys do not return, and then they belatedly discover that the boys and the coach are inside the cave, which is already overflown with lots of rainwater.
Naturally, a rescue team mainly consisting of Royal Thai Navy SEAL soldiers are immediately assembled under the supervision of the local governor, but the situation looks pretty grim from the beginning. They do not know the exact location of the boys and the coach inside the cave, and, as one foreign expert shrewdly points out, the underwater passage of the cave is not so easy to go through due to a number of very challenging aspects besides the rapidly increasing level of water in the cave.
Around that point, the movie introduces us to Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), two British civilian cave divers who instantly come to the scene after hearing about this urgent circumstance. They are not so welcomed at first, but Stanton and Volanthen soon come to show others on the scene that they are really ready for this very daunting rescue operation as experienced experts, and they eventually come to play a crucial part in locating where the boys and the coach has been in the cave during last several days.
Everyone is certainly relieved and delighted that the boys and their coach are all alive for now, but both Stanton and Volanthen know too well that there will be much more challenges to come in the next step of the rescue operation. Because the oxygen level in the temporal refuge spot of the boys and the coach inside the cave is dangerously low, they must be rescued as soon as possible, but, due to their inexperience as well as the very tricky underwater passage of the cave, they cannot possibly go all the way through the cave even if they are accompanied with professional divers.
In the end, Stanton comes to have one possible idea which can be done but is also quite risky to say the least, and that is where his Australian colleague Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) comes into the picture. As a professional anesthetist, Harris can concoct a plan for steadily making the boys and the coach sedated and unconscious during several hours for their transportation along the underwater passage of the cave, but he understandably hesitates because so many things can go wrong even if they prepare and try as much as possible.
It goes without saying that the movie often cannot help but focus more on Stanton and his colleagues because they happen to be played by well-known actors like Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton, but the screenplay by William Nicholson occasionally pays some attention to the considerable efforts of a bunch of local people willing to help the rescue operation as much as they can. For stopping the rainwater from flowing into the cave, they quickly build makeshift dams and waterways, and local farmers do not object to this at all although this will inevitably ruin their rice paddies. In case of the governor and other local officials, they understandably worry about the worst while also quite concerned about how much their public image can be damaged, but they give full support to their rescue teams as well as Stanton and his colleagues nonetheless, because everyone is well aware that time is running out for the boys and the coach minute by minute.
During the eventual climactic part, the mood naturally becomes more intense than before, but the movie thankfully shows some restraint, and Howard and his crew members including cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom did a splendid job of conveying to us the claustrophobic suspense surrounding the characters in the film. I must point out that those recreated moments of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s acclaimed documentary film “The Rescue” (2021) are relatively more vivid and impressive in comparison, but what is presented on the screen is mostly competent on the whole, and the performers look believable as their characters take enormous risks for what should be done right now.
Overall, “Thirteen Lives” is a rather plain docudrama which does not show us anything particularly new or revealing beyond what is so compellingly presented in “The Rescue”, but it is at least better than Howard’s disappointing previous film “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020). I recommend it for that reason only, but I will not urge you to watch it if you already watched “The Rescue”, so I will just let you decide on whether you will give the movie a chance or not.