« Life Under Siege | Main | Faulty Memory »

Crash Dive

Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Thirteen Lives (2022)

“Apollo 13” might have been the film that changed the game in Hollywood. It was a dramatic re-enactment of a real-life event most people had either forgotten about, or not quite understood the historical importance of. But that aborted space flight happened in 1970; and Ron Howard directed the movie version in 1995. Nowadays the rush to adapt real-life events into filmic re-enactments happens almost as soon as news cameras arrive on the ground. “Thirteen Lives” is about a Thai football team getting trapped in a flooded cave in 2018 – that is to say, four years ago. The teenagers who were in that cave are still teenagers now. Is that a spoiler? But how can it be, when the incident is so fresh in our minds? So what Mr. Howard needed to do was find an angle like what “Apollo 13” had. In that case, it was to remind us of human ingenuity in times of crisis and what humanity lost by stopping our exploration of the universe. It is unfortunate that this time around, Mr. Howard did no such thing.

The children (and their coach) are mostly props, trapped at the centre of a global whirlwind attempting to save them. The local governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) is immediately approached by local expat and cave diver Vernon (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who knows experienced cave divers worldwide who are prepared to come help. These include Englishmen Richard (Viggo Mortensen) and John (Colin Farrell), as well as Australian Harry (Joel Edgerton, one of those rare actors in whose presence the audience can relax, knowing they are in expert hands). Harry happens to be an anaesthetist, and John and Richard suggest to him the boys can be sedated in order to be removed safely. Harry says no, it’s too risky, cannot be done. And yet, we all know what happens next.

The great shock of this section is seeing Mr. Mortensen move away from his louche Captain Fantastic persona into that of a buttoned-up Englishman who hates talking and doesn’t believe in luck. The Coventry accent work he does here is absolutely dead on – he’s coming for you, Meryl Streep! – and only rivaled by what Mr. Farrell does as a slightly more outgoing English character, who has a son with whom he has teary phone calls. Before their initial dive – which is shown through a combination of map graphics and close-up underwater footage – it occurs to no one that they should bring food, that the boys might still be alive. This makes their repeated bickering over custard crème cookies a little crass.

There is plenty of time to reflect on this (two hours and 27 minutes, in fact) as the locals are almost entirely relegated to background business. One important and pleasing change from the Hollywood of 1995 is that the background business is done entirely in Thai, with subtitles. But only one of the parents (Pattrakorn Tungsupakul) is given any personality at all, which is because she’s the only woman with more than three lines in the film, which is not quite up to date. The rest of the logistical efforts to get the boys out is done in a whirlwind, with the Thai men given only fleeting moments to establish character (through a gesture, or a shirt) as they sacrifice their safety, their livelihoods or their lives in order to rescue these boys. Apparently only white men can multitask enough to bicker about cookies while saving lives.

What the movie does do well is making felt the absolute scale of the rescue effort needed, and the huge amount of work that was done swiftly, at tremendous cost, to get them out. What it does not do well is show how frightening and claustrophobic cave diving can be – mostly because it’s tougher to think of a less cinematic activity. Underwater, in a treacherous, lightless space? What is there to look at? Costume designer Tess Schofield at least provided everyone with scuba masks that don’t cover up their faces, but it’s not much better than nothing. The thing is that this all might have been damn enthralling is Mr. Howard had waited until 2043 to make it, when the exact memories of who survived and how will be as murky as that cave water.

But instead it was made now. Probably Mr. Howard needed a hit after the one-two combo of “Solo: A Star Wars Story” and “Hillbilly Elegy.” With a third flop, he might be down for the count. That would be a bad end to a career that’s included “Cocoon,” “Willow,” the underappreciated “Rush,” as well as the steathily influential “Parenthood.” But we are further from “Apollo 13” than that movie was from the events it depicted. In Hollywood memories are short and even the most garlanded players cannot coast on their talents forever. “Thirteen Lives” is an expertly made hollow shell. It’s like looking at a department store window with nothing in it. For a movie about the world coming together at huge personal risk to save a bunch of kids, it’s too much a testament to one man’s ego. And unhappily there’s nothing new about that.


Post a comment

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

© 2008-2024 Critic's Notebook and its respective authors. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Subscribe to Critic's Notebook | Follow Us on X | Contact Us | Write for Us | Reprints and Permissions