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Thirteen Lives Review: Daring Display of Heroism

With Thirteen Lives, Ron Howard effectively retells the daring retrieval of a young Thai soccer team from an increasingly deadly cave system. 

There are few tragedies that have shaken the world quite as audibly as the Tham Luang cave rescue, which took place in the late weeks of June 2018. There was barely an eye on the globe that wasn’t following intently as an international team of elite divers attempted to navigate the increasingly flooded cave system, eventually resulting in the casualty-free rescue of twelve young boys and their soccer coach, who had been stuck underground for almost three weeks. With Thirteen Lives, veteran director Ron Howard manages to recreate the anxiety and tension that must have been present at every gruelling moment of the rescue, immersively dragging the audience along for the journey with one of his most engaging thrillers yet.

In spite of the constantly increasing stakes and impossible moral dilemmas that the Tham Luang rescue posed, Howard’s film focuses primarily on two of the divers who were enlisted to rescue these boys – British divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen). Thirteen Lives follows the story from their perspective, beginning on the day of the entrapment and culminating with the daring rescue lead by these two men. Both Farrell and Mortensen provide two unbelievably compelling and vulnerable performances, showing all the nuances of fear, pressure and determination that the real-life figures must have felt constantly. Without these two actors at the helm, it’s hard to imagine that the film would have been anywhere near as engaging and enthralling – and that’s not to insult the quality of Howard’s filmmaking, but he relies entirely on the humanity and empathy of his protagonists to push this story forward.

From a technical perspective, Thirteen Lives is admittedly a mixed bag; there are some moments when scenes are cut short or the camera ignores certain charactres, which prevents these moments from feeling as impactful or important as they should have done. The film is a technical marvel at points, with some gorgeous sweeping shots and really effective sound design, but it’s just let down in these underwhelming sequences. The final half hour, for example, feels overlong and poorly paced because it lacks the snappy editing and dramatic focus that’s needed to pull of such a high-stakes sequence. The only thing that really saves these moments is the film’s impeccable production design, which is almost perfect in its recreation of the Tham Luang caves and the surrounding community. The sets, the costumes, the lighting and the overall atmosphere make this cinematic playground truly feel like an authentic reconstruction of the tragedy.

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Nophand ’Aon’ Boonyai as Thanet Natisri in THIRTEEN LIVES, directed by Ron Howard, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film, out now on Amazon Prime Video. (Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

Whilst it’s rarely effective to criticize a film by drawing comparisons to another, it’s almost impossible to discuss Thirteen Lives without also talking about last year’s outstanding documentary on the subject, The Rescue – which does a significantly more impressive job of retelling this event exactly as it happened. The Rescue admittedly has the added benefit of using real footage from the event, but it’s also filmed and constructed in a way that allows the audience to connect with the documentary’s subjects, raising the emotional stakes in a way that Thirteen Lives just doesn’t really do. It has the factual accuracy and tense filmmaking, but it doesn’t even come close to recreating the emotional intensity of this situation. So to this extent, Thirteen Lives will probably work a lot more for those who haven’t already seen The Rescue, as it will be easier to appreciate the film for what it is, instead of simply noticing the more clinical and one-noted approach to storytelling.

But none of this makes Thirteen Lives a bad film – in fact, it’s one of Ron Howard’s strongest efforts in a few years and one of the most technically-proficient dramas of the year so far. Farrell and Mortensen keep it afloat with a much-needed injection of humanity, but overall it’s just missing that emotional spark that’s absolutely vital when you’re dealing with such a high-stakes event. Definitely worth a watch if you’re seeking a high-budget drama that’s easy to watch, but anybody looking to really lose themselves in this story should turn their attention instead to The Rescue

Thirteen Lives is now available to watch everywhere on Prime Video.

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