Ron Howard is an expert in making survival dramas. Anybody who has watched Apollo 13 would remember how beautifully and terrifyingly he captured the hopelessness and claustrophobia of the situation. Well, believe it or not, in Thirteen Lives, he does it again and I feel does it better this time. The vacuum of space is replaced by the ferocity of water but the tension, thrill and nerve-wracking anxiety are all here. The veteran filmmaker proves emphatically that one doesn’t need huge budgets, VFX, or superheroes to make a good film. Just give a good story and strong cast, and one will deliver a masterpiece, which Thirteen Lives truly is. Also read: Colin Farrell on how shooting Thirteen Lives was tougher than playing Penguin in The Batman
Thirteen Lives is based on the infamous 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, where 12 children and their football coach were trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand for three weeks. Despite the Thai military’s best efforts, the kids remained trapped for days and it took the efforts of expert cave divers from UK and Australia to finally reach and save them. The film, which releases on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, August 5, retells the story of this extraordinary rescue from the perspective of the divers, the children and their families, and the hapless local authorities.
I will admit I was apprehensive when I first learnt of the film. It is so easy to cast white actors in a film about a tragedy in the Third World and turn it into a ‘white saviour’ tale. But Ron Howard deftly steers clear of that. He treats the story and the country with utmost sincerity and respect, highlighting the role of the local authorities and residents as well. It is not the story of four white men teaching some Thai people how to do their jobs, but the tale of four ordinary men enabling a community to save their children.
The USP of the film is the setting. Much of it takes place underwater, in claustrophobic and dark caves with rescuers racing against time and nature to save the trapped team and their coach. But despite that, no scene is confusing or too dark. The cinematography is clear, the dialogue is coherent. One can easily follow the action even when the dialogue is in Thai. And the action is breathtaking. Each and every underwater sequence is different, which means you don’t feel any repetition. The background score and the constant drizzle of rain sounds add to the intensity and urgency of the scenes. It’s almost a complete package.
The one thing that probably goes against it is the near two-and-a-half hour runtime, which is about 15-20 minutes too long. Granted that packing so many events and narratives requires additional time but the film would have been more thrilling had it been slightly shorter.
Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen are at the front and centre of the film. The two divers had the biggest impact on the rescue as they were the ones who located the kids and then–along with Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) devised the strategy to get them out. The two actors carry the film on their shoulders and their transformation into these expert cave divers is more impressive than any prosthetic-laden performance they have delivered of late (if you know, you know).
But for me, the stars of the show are the Thai actors. Two in particular– Sahajak Boonthanakit as Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn and Vithaya Pansringarm as General Anupong Paochinda–steal the show. These are two men who can’t see eye to eye but must work together to ensure the safety of the kids. The support cast, including the local villagers and the kids’ families, all deliver strong performances.
Almost half the film is in Thai language, a big challenge for the director who does not speak or understand a word of it. But despite that, he managed to get small nuances like the dialect correct, which shows his attention to detail and commitment to realism. Filmmakers who make stories set in the Third World can use this film as a lesson on how to respectfully approach a culture and stories set there instead of imposing Western sensibilities onto them.
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Sukollawat Kanarot, and Sahajak Boonthanakit