REVIEW: Thirteen Lives (2022)

(L to R) Thira ‘Aum’ Chutikul as Commander Kiet, Popetorn ‘Two’ Soonthornyanaku as Dr Karn, Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, Colin Farrell as John Volanthen and Viggo Mortenson as Rick Stanton in THIRTEEN LIVES, a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film. Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures © 2022 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Directed by Ron Howard — Screenplay by William Nicholson — Story by Don Macpherson and William Nicholson.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard’s latest film, Thirteen Lives, is a survival drama that tells the true story of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand. It is an incredible and well-known true story. Back then a junior football team — and their coach — were trapped inside the Tham Luang caves for 18 days after heavy rainfall flooded the cave system and made it impossible for them to get out on their own. Led by a trio of Hollywood stars (Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton) whose cave-diving characters the film primarily follows, this film documents the complicated rescue.

The big question for me with this film was whether or not this film could set itself apart as the definitive film about this cave rescue. Because the fact of the matter is that a lot of people know this story, and the events have already been detailed in several documentaries prior to this survival drama, including last year‘s fantastic and distressing edge-of-your-seat documentary, The Rescue (directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin), which I highly recommend.

You would hope that this survival drama had an interesting angle or approach that hadn’t yet been seen considering the fact that it is — give or take — thirty minutes longer than the aforementioned documentary. And I was hopeful since I like Ron Howard and the cast quite a bit. I thought it was a nice touch from a Hollywood director to have the first 16 minutes be almost entirely in Thai. But then the Hollywood adaptation begins, the characters from the beginning fall into the background, and thinly written characters start to appear and take over. And then it’s pretty much what you imagine it to be.

It is solid and serviceable, and it isn’t as Hollywoodized as it could’ve been. It looks good, the cave diving is claustrophobic, the sound work is excellent, and, in spite of the thinly written, relatively one-dimensional characterizations, the acting from a pessimistic Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton is uniformly solid. I think it must be said, though, that it doesn’t ever live up to The Rescue (even though the underwater scenes in Howard’s film are good, they aren’t as distressing as I thought they were in that documentary), and I think having seen that excellent and suspenseful documentary significantly lessens Thirteen Lives’ impact on you. Frankly, I thought that this dramatization was never as emotionally absorbing as the documentary, and even though Howard’s film is longer, it really does feel like it brushes past moments from the documentary that were deeply affecting or interesting.

Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives is a fine dramatization, but you’d be better off just watching The Rescue, a documentary that is simply much better. The Rescue remains the definitive film about the Tham Luang cave rescue, but if you’d rather watch a dramatization than a documentary, then Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives gets the job done, even if it never comes close to reaching the heights of the aforementioned documentary.

6 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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