TL;DR – based on the real life events of a Thai soccer team trapped in a flooded cave.
Review (warning: spoilers)
In June 2018, monsoon rains arrived early flooding the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand and trapping a soccer team of twelve boys aged between 11 and 16 and their assistant coach. The event captured the attention of the world over and resulted in an international rescue mission involving over 10,000 people including Navy SEALs, professional cave divers, rescue workers, police, soldiers and government representatives from around the world.
Director Ron Howard delivers a solid retelling of these events. The complexity of the rescue was, in no uncertain terms, astounding. It included:
- Teams scaling the mountain to divert rain from going down sinkholes into the caves, which instead resulted in flooding of nearby farmland and destroying crops but was a key measure in minimising underwater currents in the caves for the divers.
- Installing pumps that pumped out millions of gallons of water from the caves.
- Mapping out the network of tunnels and creating lines that would guide the divers back and forth. In total, it took divers a staggering eleven hours roughly for a round trip from the entrance to where the soccer team were stranded and back again (spanning a total of 8 kilometres).
- Placing spare diving cylinders at certain points along the network.
- A pulley system established at the entrance to transport the boys into ambulances.
The behind-the-scenes making of this film must have been enormous as Howard captures every ounce of tension from his main cast of characters, the fear and anxiety of the coach and children stuck in the cave (and huge supporting cast outside including families, government officials, workers and volunteers), and the claustrophobic confines of the dive itself.
The main cast, and the focus of the film, is primarily on the rescuers. John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), two British cave rescue divers, and Dr Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian anaesthetist, who all played key roles in the rescue mission. And this film largely revolves around their actions.
The camerawork is incredible. The above-the-ground camera shots of the mountain itself with monsoon rains unleashing from the heavens along with the countryside of Thailand is stunning, and this is contrasted brilliantly against the fear-inducing death trap of the underwater journey that the divers must take. Watching the divers squeeze through nooks and crannies and along tunnels barely wide enough for an adult human is captured using camera angles and shots that must have been painstakingly done.
Howard demonstrates his experience as director and what initially appears to be a lengthy running time of 2.5 hours for the movie ended up feeling to me like it passed in an instant. Besides the drama of the rescue itself, the film does touch upon the politics, debates and issues that confronted those involved. Probably the most profound one being the idea to anaesthetise the children so they would be unconscious for the entire trip out of the cave and the associated risks with that idea.
The fact that all twelve boys and their coach were successfully rescued is nothing short of a miracle. And the film honours Saman Kunan (a former SEAL who died during one of the dives) and Beirut Pakbara (also a SEAL who died of a blood infection during the operation).
I have read that there are several other production companies that have made or will make a film or TV series about the Tham Luang cave rescue. Notably, The Rescue a 2021 documentary film by National Geographic has been critically acclaimed as it interviews and obtains real footage of the divers and the rescue. And Netflix are producing a TV series titled Thai Cave Rescue (set for release in September 2022 at time of writing this blog) after obtaining access to the thirteen members of the Thai soccer team.
Comparisons are likely to occur, but I have been fortunate to watch Thirteen Lives without having seen any other versions. Where Thirteen Lives does not explore are the lives of the soccer team themselves. We only see the surface of these kids and their coach, and this was likely intentional by Ron Howard as only Netflix has obtained the rights to the team members.
In that light, however, it’s still an engaging and riveting experience from beginning to end.
9 out of 10