OOn June 23, 2018, 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach became trapped deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system by rising flood waters. And if you don’t know what happened next, you had to live in your own personal cave during the 18-day search and rescue operation. But despite the fact that we all know the outcome, and it’s the third film in as many years to tell the story, Ron Howard’s account of the drama is compulsively watchable and breathlessly tense.
This version of events, which stars Viggo Mortensen as terse British cave diver Rick Stanton and Colin Farrell as fellow cookie-hoarding expert John Volanthen, follows the 2021 Bafta-nominated documentary The rescue. But while the two films essentially tell the same story, there is a distinct difference in tone. Thirteen Lives is sober, efficient and impartial, where The rescue has a tendency towards strident scoring and emotional engineering.
Howard’s deft and understated handling of events belies what a complex undertaking this is as a narrative. Cave divers are key characters, but the film also follows the contribution of Thai groundwater specialist Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai). It weaves into the Thai Navy the Seals, the children’s families, and touches the political backdrop. The rescue, Thirteen Lives stress, was a team effort; and likewise this thrilling film. Applause is due to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and the entire sound department for crushing the very air of cinema with an unbearably claustrophobic array of underwater sound design.