REVIEW: Thirteen Lives: The definitive Thai cave rescue movie

I don’t remember what I was up to in 2018, but I do know that I wasn’t paying particular attention to things that were going on in the news. As someone who majored in history I have a great passion for the subject, but I often find myself woefully inattentive to big events when they are actually unfolding. 

I was vaguely aware of some kids being trapped in a cave in Thailand at that time and I certainly wished them well, but it was not until later that I realized just how scary and desperate things had gotten for the junior soccer team in question. 

Luckily for me, filmmakers, documentarians, and authors never let a good story go to waste, so just a few years later I would learn all about the struggle, heroism, and fear involved via Thirteen Lives, a tightly scripted, finely crafted film that will undoubtedly be the authority on the event for years       to come.

The second movie by director Ron Howard about a real-life event where a large amount of people go to great lengths to save a small group of people with the number thirteen in the title, Thirteen Lives owes a lot to its director and cinematographer, as cool shots and harrowingly claustrophobic moments abound. 

The film, which mostly focuses on the British cave divers John Volanthen (played by Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (played by Viggo Mortensen), is surprisingly accurate, as Stanton himself was hired as a consultant and has said that the only unrealistic thing about the movie is the clarity of the cave water, which is, of course, a necessary change. 

Thirteen Lives is also fairly thorough in its recapturing, but rarely drags despite its 180-minute runtime. Things move along at a fine pace, keeping the audience engaged as the depicted days flash by and the anxiety mounts.

Another way the filmmakers bring authenticity to the retelling is through the casting and language, which I greatly appreciated. 

The ill-fated soccer team is played by actual Taiwanese children from the area, and people speak Taiwanese when it makes sense and English when it doesn’t. There’s never that awkward moment where people stop speaking their native language and permanently switch over to English for the sake of the audience, a wise omission that makes you feel like you are actually witnessing real events (I did miss out on some dialogue, as my cat chose to jump up in front of the TV and blocked the subtitles once or twice). And the kids are good; everyone is.

One of the things I wish this movie would have done is spent more time with said children. We mostly see their struggles through the lens of their saviors, rarely dwelling on the fear and struggles they went through in the dark by themselves. 

The aforementioned good pacing also stumbles a bit near the end, which is overlong and could have definitely been streamlined to reduce viewer fatigue. But overall Thirteen Lives is the definitive retelling of a small piece of natural disaster history that just may make you never want to step foot in a cave again.

Thirteen Lives is now available on Amazon Prime.