We already knew the outcome of Apollo 13. The movie should not have been a heartracing thrill ride like it was. But that’s what happens when you bring in consummate pros Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Those two are dynamite making movies about harrowing real world events, making them the perfect pair to take on Thirteen Lives, in all its underground cavern chamber glory.
We’re going all the way back to Thailand in 2018. A soccer team of teenage boys just finished a match in late June. 12 of the boys, and their coach Ekkaphon (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), decided to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non cave before the rain comes. Unfortunately a storm front moves in early, trapping the thirteen in the cave by submerging them. The embattled governor of the area Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit) mobilizes the Thai government and the citizens like ex marine Saman Kunan (Sukollawat Kanarot) to come aid the rescue effort. Catching wind of the situation are British cave divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who also fly to Thailand to offer their experiences to help navigate the treacherous now submerged chambers of the cave.
Thirteen Lives works because of Howard’s talents and experience as a director. Because of the heavy subject matter, Howard goes for the Apollo 13/Martian approach to the story: get into the mechanics of the rescue. A utilitarian approach means Howard had to do his homework, and explain to the audience the magnitude of the task at hand. He smartly splits the movie into 2 parts: the search then the rescue. For the search, Howard uses a video game trick: he gives us a map that he slowly grows as the divers explore more and more of the cave, plus he adds the time it takes to conduct the search. During the search, we also get an idea of the arduous task ahead of everyone with all these little problems to solve: darkness, claustrophobia, finite oxygen, strong underwater currents, etc. Once that is set up, Howard takes us above ground, with some great drone shots to give us an idea of the sheer size of the effort going towards helping the thirteen try to get out of the cave, from the Illinois based Thai engineer who helped stop some water entering the caves, to the farmers below the mountain sacrificing their crops for water removal. Through these simple visuals and diving sequences, Ron Howard shows the audience the herculean task it took just to simply find the boys.
And then comes the really hard part! Simply finding the boys isn’t enough: they’ve got to be rescued too. Again, Howard shines brightly here establishing the even more complicated task at hand. One brilliant example: early in the film, Richard Stanton has a man he’s carrying underwater freak out and almost kill himself and Richard because he panicked in the darkness. That was a grown man. So Howard uses that small scale situation and has Viggo Mortensen’s Richard explain how 13 KIDS, over a much longer distance, makes the “standard” rescue impossible here. While searching for a solution, the boys have to be delivered food consistently which Howard uses real life to help establish how dangerous that can be to inexperienced divers. And on top of all that, the clock is ticking: monsoon season will start full throttle by July 8, which will completely submerge the caves and drown the kids, or eliminate their oxygen supply (nice stealing from your own movie, Ron). The solution the men come up with is daring and crazy as expected, but Howard’s veteran cast is ready for it, playing the British divers like the laid back privileged men drowning in stress (forgive the pun) that they are. Plus, Howard amps up the tension by using tragic pitfalls from earlier, as well as new pitfalls the divers encounter simply trying to get the soccer players safely home.
Ron Howard got lost a bit the last decade, chewed up and spit out by the Star Wars and MAGA crowds most recently. I’m glad Opie regrouped and went back to what makes him a great director, scoring a big win with Thirteen Lives. Here’s hoping a dog rescues a person in a well in real life, so Howard can fulfill his destiny and make a modern retelling of Lassie to the delight of dog lovers everywhere!