On June 23, 2018, twelve soccer players and their coach became trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand. Thirteen Lives tells the story of the rescue effort, starring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as two cave divers who enter the flooded cave to save the boys. Those who remember the worldwide news coverage of the event or those who have seen the 2021 documentary The Rescue will have a knowledge of this film’s story that may lead to a merely enjoyable experience. However, as someone introduced to the event through this film, I found it to be a gripping, suspenseful film that succeeds in recounting actual events.
This movie comes to us from Ron Howard, who proves himself to be one of the more versatile directors working in Hollywood. You would never guess the same person directed A Beautiful Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. He has helmed phenomenal work in the past. While he has lately had a few fumbles with Inferno and Hillbilly Elegy, this film is Howard’s return to form as a cinematically rich, riveting account of one of the most miraculous events in recent memory.
Howard does phenomenal work on this film, with close attention to sound design and a grounded look at this daring rescue. He uses music sparingly throughout, offering long moments of quiet suspense where you feel immersed in the dark, wet cave environment. His direction complements William Nicholson’s screenplay very well, as this movie has a fast-paced first act, getting the story started immediately. This is the type of film that doesn’t present itself as flashy or stylish but feels more like an objective look at everything people did to save the boys trapped in the cave.
You can easily forget that you’re watching a movie, given how investing the story is. Part of that is due to the performances, with the talent of Mortensen and Farrell front and center. Earlier this year, these two did excellent work in Crimes of the Future and The Batman, respectively, and seeing them together is a thing to behold as they vanish within their characters. Everything about this film feels naturalistic rather than showy, creating a tone that works perfectly for the movie’s events. While the characters can sometimes be kept at arm’s length, the story is strong enough to keep you watching.
Howard caters this film to those who are unfamiliar with the events. He focuses more on the rescuers than the boys stuck in the cave, leaving audiences to wonder whether they are alive. This movie builds stakes upon stakes, and as Thirteen Lives continues, it is clear that the odds grow slimmer and slimmer that the boys will all make it out of the cave. There is a ticking clock running throughout the movie as Howard keeps the audience in tune with how long the boys have been trapped for and how long it takes to swim into the cave.
At two and a half hours long, the movie can feel like a heavy undertaking with time that may be better spent watching The Rescue. However, Howard does a lot with this film. A claustrophobic, suspenseful survival film that knows how to tell its story, Thirteen Lives doesn’t get boring once. The characters have a clear objective, and you will be drawn into the mystery of how they will succeed in their goal. This is a fascinating story, and it’s one told right.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8 equates to “Great.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the art succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.
Disclosure: The critic attended a press screening for ComingSoon’s Thirteen Lives review.