‘Thirteen Lives’ (2022) Review: An Insensitive Retelling Devoid of Emotional Moments
Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives is a retelling of the 2018 Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue that shocked Thailand and the world. When it was announced that Hollywood plans to adapt the rescue story into a dramatised movie, the responses weren’t positive. The rescue of the football team was an international effort with a team of cave divers led by Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who are the best in the world. Due to the industry’s history of centring white saviour narratives, there was a concern about the Thai cave rescue centring the white divers instead of the football team. From the start, many Thai rescuers volunteered to help and they were heavily involved in the 18-day search-and-rescue operation. Thirteen Lives attempts to re-dramatise the rescue, but this movie is one of the many instances where a documentary, which already exists in the form of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s The Rescue, could have sufficed.
The film begins as the Coach (James Teeradon Supapunpinyo) and the 12 boys finish their football practice and head to an underground cave in Northern Thailand for some amateur exploring. They leave their bicycles and walk into the cave with flashlights, a place which is open to the public and usually safe outside of the monsoon season. But when an early storm hits the area, the mountain is flooded with water with heavy rainfall. At home, their parents don’t know about their whereabouts and they find the boys’ bicycles outside the cave with none of them insight, unable to go inside the cave since it is flooded. The Governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) and the Thai Navy SEALS attempt to rescue the football team but they are unsuccessful because they are not specialised cave divers. Then a British expatriate Vern Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who is familiar with the cave, suggests bringing the best cave divers to locate the boys, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) step in.
The possibility of the football team not surviving the rescue was high. Thirteen Lives shows the many risks the team had taken to dive inside the interiors of the cave and the effort of the local engineer to ask the farmers to help him dam the sinkholes from the mountains to slow down the flooding. Other efforts, such as pumping cubic litres of water and diverting it to the crops and helping the rescue efforts. As the story progresses forward, the movie focuses on the separate rescue efforts but the central narrative always leads to the two British divers.
From the beginning of his arrival, Rick makes it clear that they may not be able to find the team inside the cave. If they were found, there is a possibility that they might not be able to get them out. This attitude, while understandable due to the heavy monsoon storm and rainfall, is present during the first half of the movie. Their first attempt at diving inside the cave was unsuccessful, and the film shows how dangerously claustrophobic and the strong currents make it impossible for inexperienced cave divers. On the second attempt, Rick and John dive into the cave and find the football team a week after their disappearance. This was a milestone for the entire team and this news spread like wildfire, but figuring out how to dive them out of the cave was the tricky part.
Thirteen Lives shows a dramatised version of the friction between the Thai Navy SEALS and the independent team of experienced cave divers, Rick and John, of the unlikely chance that they might not survive. It’s a battle between these two groups, especially the two British divers, who seem to have different attitudes towards the situation. While Rick is blunt, John is hopeful about it, even to the point of bringing Dr Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton), a cave diver and anaesthesiologist from Australia, to carry out a very unusual and unethical plan to anaesthetise the kids and navigate the cave. It’s a test, one which has never been done before, but his expertise is important and extremely time crucial since the Coach and the 12 boys need to be submerged inside the cave for an almost five-to-seven-hour dive.
All of these details are extremely important to the timeline of the cave, which Howard prioritises more than anything. In between the rescue efforts, he cuts to focus on the parents grieving in their tents and the farmers on top of the mountain to dam the sinkholes from time to time, so that the movie doesn’t divert away from the operation and into a story about western heroes. However, none of the Thai rescuers was ever the centre of the narrative. The movie doesn’t explore the death of former Navy SEAL Saman Kunan (Weir Sukollawat Kanaros), who volunteered to rescue the boys and died on a supply run while diving inside the cave. It’s just an unsatisfying and incomplete way of retelling the story of the traumatic event. There isn’t a focus on any of the parents, except for one who is worried and spends most of her time pacing and looking worried. On top of that, after the Coach and the 12 boys are found inside the cave, the entire focus is still on the rescue efforts. Perhaps if the movie spent some time exploring the boys’ emotions and the rescue team that was spending time with them to boost their morale, it would have been an emotional film.
The issue with Thirteen Lives is the lack of emotional moments within the narrative. The Thai cave rescue was a global effort and it was emotional for everyone involved and watching it from all over the world. But this dramatisation is such a washed-up version that focuses too much on the deep water scenes and technical aspects more than the actual rescue. When Rick, John and Harry figure out the nuts and bolts of the first ever attempted cave rescue, which is extreme but the only option, the sequence ends abruptly. The process involves typing their arms and legs to make sure they don’t freak out when they wake up from the anaesthesia, and the entire sequence is an assembly line. There are no emotional moments that connect the viewers to the boys because they know next to nothing about them throughout the movie.
A better option would have been to watch The Rescue, a documentary that adds more emotional impact because of how the rescue impacted the people that were involved in it. News coverage, footage shot during the rescue, and interviews retell the story from the perspectives of the actual cave divers. It’s riveting and harrowing at the same time, but it never tries to divert the story away from what’s important. The filmmakers convey the dangerous situation to the viewers and it builds tension by utilising the interviews and GoPro footage shot by the cave divers.
The rescue operation would have been impossible without Rick Stanton, John Volanthen, Harry Harris, Jason Mallinson, Chris Jewell, Jim Warny, Craig Challen, and the thousands of people that were involved. But since the movie focuses more on the cave divers and their urgency to navigate the football team out using a very mechanical effort. It also runs into the problem of diverting the focus away from the parents and children, and it just lacks emotional moments.
Thirteen Lives is nothing but a white saviour movie, and its attempts to show the retellings of the Thai cave rescue is a dramatisation that places the British cave divers and their team at the centre. It’s completely devoid of any feelings or emotions and focuses more on trying to capture the claustrophobic, murky cave interiors. The viewers are completely submerged in the caves and none of the scenes is appealing enough, which keeps distracting the viewer from the drama on the surface. The movie is a prime example of history repeating itself, to show that white saviour narratives are disappointing and take the focus away from the main objective. It’s a disappointing outcome and Hollywood has yet to learn that retelling stories of this nature in this way is insensitive.