Amazon Prime exclusive movie Thirteen Lives further proves that no real-life saga about the triumph of human spirit and ingenuity goes un-Hollywoodized. You likely already know the story: In 2018, 12 boys and their soccer coach ventured into a cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province when sudden torrential rain brought flash floods, trapping them deep underground. A massive international rescue mission led by local officials and a handful of British cave-diving specialists went to work and, amazingly, after 18 pressure-filled days, saved all the boys and their coach. Director Ron Howard oversaw this big-budget BOATS (Based On A True Story) dramatization, and it may just be his best work in decades.
The Gist: They should’ve been celebrating Phiraphat’s birthday by scarfing down SpongeBob cake. Instead, they found themselves trapped a mile-and-a-half underground. It was a perfect storm of terribly coincidental timing: After soccer practice but before the party, the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach hop on their bikes and gleefully park them at the mouth of the Tham Luang Cave. They nod respectfully at the Sleeping Princess shrine – named such because the clump of mountains resembles a prostrate woman – and chatter and laugh as they clamber down slopes and over rocks and through forests of stalactites. Then the rains came with biblical force. A few hours pass; parents fret. By midnight, the governor arrives at a bustling scene. Navy SEALs pull in. A British man with a detailed cave map turns up. It’s tense.
There are many details here – times, dates, locations, subtitles on the screen. Specific locations, like CHAMBER 3 and T-JUNCTION, followed by disorienting stats like 1,500 METERS. The SEALs go in, but rushing currents from persistent rain pushes them right back out, battered and bloody. Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit) sighs, furrows his brow. Capt. Arnont’s (Theerapat Sajakul) stern face sharpens – those are his best men. The rain continues mercilessly. Workers wrestle with generators fueling pumps to flush some of the water out of the cave. Up on the mountain, local man Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai) organizes a crew to dam sinkholes and stave off the flooding. A small city of tents and trucks and workers and cooks and officials and locals and media has sprung up around the cave site.
DAY 5 arrives. In Coventry, England, Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) fields a call from his cave-diver buddy John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). Their incredibly specialized skills are needed. “I don’t even like kids,” Richard grumbles, but that doesn’t mean he won’t hop on a plane and try to help. They walk into the commotion. “They’re amateurs!” declares Capt. Arnont. Sure, one is a retired firefighter and the other’s an IT guy, but their hobby gives them the know-how that SEALs lack. They don their gear and scope out the cave but the rain. Won’t. Stop. DAY 10. Richard and John navigate the murk and dark and rocks and stalactites and narrow crevices and tricky turns and pop their heads above the water. “Smell that?”, John says. And there they are, 13 souls perched on a slanting rock. They’re skinny, tired, scared and hungry, but breathing. Their coach taught them to meditate. There’s hope, but not a how, net yet. There’s still eight days to go in this story and nearly two hours to go in this movie.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Thirteen Lives goes hand-in-hand with The Rescue, an extraordinarily suspenseful documentary chronicle of the ordeal – an extraordinarily suspenseful documentary chronicle of the ordeal that strangely didn’t get any Oscar consideration, I might add. (It’s also worth nothing that there’s another movie about these same events called The Cave, which came out in 2019.)
Performance Worth Watching: This is a strong, steady cast across the board, reflecting Howard’s worthy attempt to avoid turning this into a white-savior story. And so, Gov. Osatanakorn is the most subtly complex character here; those were his final days on the job, and he theorizes that his superiors pushed him to the forefront of an operation that was likely doomed to fail. A little internet reading on the guy suggests he was demoted for refusing to cooperate with corrupt officials, and although that’s not explicitly stated in the movie, Pansringarm carries significant dramatic weight here, his nonverbals showing a subtly frothy stew of worry and concern as Osatanakorn makes difficult decisions and deals with grieving parents, thirsty media throngs and intense political pressure.
Memorable Dialogue: Gruff and grumpy Richard stays focused: “They’re packages. We’re just the delivery guys.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: We know how this ends, and yet, we’re still invested, drawn in by invigorating, efficient filmmaking. Howard, a serial dealer in heavy schmaltz, maintains an even-keeled tone, dials back on the swelling-strings musical score and abstains from any crass emotional manipulation – which is exactly how one should approach this story, which is already uplifting and hopeful in stark black-and-white on a Wikipedia page. His docudrama methodology is assured, necessary and, dare I say it, pretty much perfect.
This is Howard’s best movie since Apollo 13, and it’s an altogether different approach to similar material, a true story about gumption and intelligence in the face of adversity. In Thirteen Lives, he uses subtitles and graphics to convey exposition, and clearly establishes a variety of complex, interlocking set pieces – the cave mouth, inner chambers, the mountainside where workers dam water, farms where diverted water is destroying crops, etc. – so he can easily return to them, checking status and marking progress as divers and officials puzzle over a variety of predicaments and, eventually, finally, dive beneath the surface and suit up the boys and assure them and distract them and dose them with ketamine and lead them through a terrifying claustrophobic hell zone, every step along the way fraught with risk.
In other words, this saga already had earned its harrowing and suspenseful peaks and valleys, its emotional catharsis, and doesn’t need Howard to amplify it. So he doesn’t. It’s all in a day’s work for the heroes of this story, and the same goes for iots director. Howard tells a story about sheer, unrelenting competence with precisely that.
Our Call: STREAM IT. These days, old-school BOATS movies don’t get much better than this.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
Stream Thirteen Lives on Amazon Prime