Thirteen Lives Movie Review: Engaging survival drama tells tale of team spirit and resilience
If the heart-wrenching music and the believable performances are the heart of Thirteen Lives, it is the production design that is its soul
Thirteen Lives, which tells the miraculous story of the rescue of trapped soccer players from the Tham Luang Cave, reminds me of author Eric Greitens' quote, "Resilience is distinct from mere survival, and more than mere endurance. Resilience is often endurance with direction." And the film, based on the 2018 incident, does not just focus on the edge-of-the-seat thrills but also highlights the sedulous global rescue effort, team spirit, human tenacity and resilience that went behind the one common goal.
Director Ron Howard
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Back in June 2018, a team of 12 soccer players (aged eleven to sixteen), accompanied by their coach, embarked on an adventurous journey to explore the Tham Luang Caves in Thailand. Incessant rain storms, the subsequent flooding of the caves, and the team being caught in the calamity became the adventure that the entire world glued to. Thirteen Lives primarily follows the two foreign scuba divers —Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) — who join the Thai forces in the rescue mission.
Interestingly, Ron Howard's feature attempts an inclusive narrative by building parallel plots, which also trains its focus on the efforts of volunteers, locals, families and government institutions. The narrative is built in a way to keep us engaged, especially with a nondescript water engineer's plan being the breakthrough the rescue team desperately needed. Through this manoeuvre, we are also shown how the farmers altruistically decide to flood their crop fields to help save the hapless team inside the cave. The sheer volume of water that is displaced from the cave gives a glimpse into the magnitude of the mission.
Likewise, Ron and writer William Nicholson do not shy away from focusing on the myth and faith aspects. In the film, according to the locals, the sleeping princess Doi Nang Non (statue of a lady sleeping outside the cave) captured the boys because she was in distress. We see how prayers are offered to appease the sleeping princess. It is almost like the makers saying that in times of torment, all beliefs are par for the course.
Thirteen Lives also authentically captures the psyche and emotions of the trapped lot without resorting to unnecessary dramatisation. Even when there are heightened emotions in play, the writing does hit the high notes without trying to milk the situation for overt sentimentality. While watching films based on real stories of such reach, one might always have doubts whether there would be anything new and worthwhile that is explored. However, Thirteen Lives is undoubtedly a film that would dispel such notions. Thanks to its realistic treatment, trying to give a glimpse into the power of human grit and bringing to life certain unknown details of the saga. In fact, despite knowing how this story ends, we are still kept invested by the visuals of the film that shows the ordeals of the divers who navigated narrow, crooked tunnels to reach the team.
If the heart-wrenching music and the believable performances are the heart of Thirteen Lives, it is the production design that is its soul. The replica of the Thai cave, erected in Queensland, is a compelling recreation that is bolstered by the colour tones and the landscape of the cave's exterior. In fact, such is the detailing that we almost believe we are watching all of it unfold in the first person. However, the length of the film (147 minutes) does get overwhelming at points due to the excessive usage of underwater shots.
The film, which is a subtle reflection of the tenacity of human endurance, ends with a dedication to the two Thai divers who died in the mission. As the credits roll, one can't help but resonate with the universality of the core idea of Thirteen Lives — "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."