Relive the 2018 rescue of 12 boys from a Thai cave — now with famous actors

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | July 28, 2022

Thirteen Lives
Prime Video, Opens Aug. 5
3 out of 5

Director Ron Howard is known as a competent storyteller. While hardly challenging, his movies are mostly crowd-pleasers (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) that even provide mild thrills. “Harmless” would be the best way to describe him.

That all changed in the midst of the pandemic and turmoil of the U.S. presidential election in November 2020 when Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy opened on Netflix. Based on a mediocre memoir by J.D. Vance, the supposedly inspiring drama not only wasted Amy Adams and Glenn Close in token roles as an opioid addict and tough-as-nails grandma, it also elevated Vance to the status of folk hero.

While Howard never denounced the film, or the author (he claims to be “surprised” by how much of a political opportunist/extremist Vance turned out to be), it was clear he needed some kind of redemption. Enter Thirteen Lives, a dramatization of the 2018 rescue of 12 kids and their soccer instructor from deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand.

The most surprising aspect of the film is how unsentimental it is. There’s barely any character building. The focus is squarely on the process that allowed three volunteer cave divers (played by Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton) to buck bureaucracy and military meddling to free the children from certain doom. Sure, there’s a ‘white saviour’ feel to it. But that’s pretty much how the story went.

Thirteen Lives does a superb job recreating the claustrophobic conditions inside the labyrinth-like cave. As a good Ron Howard movie, it’s not willingly controversial, so the whole episode of Elon Musk picking a fight with the rescue team is nowhere to be found (Musk offered the use of a mini-submarine, an objectively stupid idea given the cave’s topography).

If you used to like John Boorman movies, this is the closest you’ll get to a new one.