Ron Howard is an expert in making survival dramas. Anyone who has seen Apollo 13 will remember how beautifully and terrifying he captured the hopelessness and claustrophobia of the situation. Well, believe it or not, in Thirteen Lives he’s doing it again and I have a feeling it’s going to be better this time. The vacuum of space is replaced by the ferocity of water, but the tension, thrill and unnerving fear are all there. The veteran filmmaker emphatically proves that you don’t need huge budgets, VFX or superheroes to make a good film. Just give a good story and a strong cast, and you’ll deliver a masterpiece, which is what Thirteen Lives really is. Also read: Colin Farrell on how shooting Thirteen Lives was harder than playing Penguin in The Batman

Thirteen Lives is based on the infamous rescue of Tham Luang Cave in 2018, which left 12 children and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand for three weeks. Despite the best efforts of the Thai military, the children remained trapped for days and it took the efforts of expert cave divers from the UK and Australia to eventually reach and rescue them. The movie, which comes out on Amazon Prime video on Friday, August 5, tells the story of this extraordinary rescue from the perspective of the divers, the children and their families, and the unfortunate local authorities.

I have to admit I was apprehensive when I first heard of the film. It’s so easy to cast white actors in a movie about a Third World tragedy and turn it into a “white savior” story. But Ron Howard deftly dodges that. He treats the story and the country with the utmost sincerity and respect, also emphasizing the role of the local authorities and residents. It is not the story of four white men teaching Thai people how to do their jobs, but the story of four ordinary men empowering a community to save their children.

The USP of the film is the setting. Much of it takes place underwater, in claustrophobic and dark caves with rescuers racing against time and nature to rescue the trapped team and their coach. But despite that, no scene is confusing or too dark. The cinematography is clear, the dialogue is coherent. One can easily follow the action even if the dialogue is in Thai. And the action is breathtaking. Each underwater sequence is different, meaning you don’t feel a repetition. The background music and the constant drizzle of rain sounds add to the intensity and urgency of the scenes. It’s almost a complete package.

Joel Edgerton in a still from Thirteen Lives.
Joel Edgerton in a still from Thirteen Lives.

The only thing that probably goes against it is the nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime, which is about 15-20 minutes too long. Granted wrapping so many events and stories takes extra time, but the movie would have been more exciting if it had been a little shorter.

Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen are front and center of the film. The two divers had the biggest impact on the rescue because they were the ones who located the children and then – along with Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) devised the strategy to get them out. The two actors carry the film on their shoulders, and their transformation into these expert cave divers is more impressive than any prosthetic-laden feats they’ve delivered lately (if you know, you know).

But for me the stars of the show are the Thai actors. Two in particular – Sahajak Boonthanakit as Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn and Vithaya Pansringarm as General Anupong Paochinda – steal the show. These are two men who cannot see each other, but must work together to ensure the safety of the children. The supporting cast, including the local villagers and the children’s families, all deliver strong performances.

Almost half of the film is in the Thai language, a major challenge for the director who does not speak or understand a word. But despite that, he managed to get minor nuances like the dialect correct, showing his attention to detail and dedication to realism. Filmmakers who create stories set in the Third World can use this film as a lesson to respectfully approach a culture and stories set there rather than imposing Western sensibilities on them.

Thirteen lives

Director: Ron Howard

Form: Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Sukollawat Kanarot and Sahajak Boonthanakit


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