By MARK KENNEDY – AP Entertainment Writer
Twenty-seven years ago, Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” greeted men with the right stuff — calm courage and grace under pressure. This summer, he’s returned to that magic number for a similar rescue story, but traded the vastness of space for a film deep underground.
“Thirteen Lives” is a dramatization of what happened in July 2018, when 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded limestone cave in Thailand for several weeks. As with his space film, pulling them out will take a lot of spontaneous skill.
This particular cave rescue is natural fodder for drama: a group of cave diving hobbyists from Europe, along with Thai Navy SEALS and hundreds of farmers, engineers and helpers, came together to celebrate a happy ending – all the boys and their trainer survived. (Spoiler if you’ve been literally in a cave for the last four years.) “Thirteen Lives” is available on Prime Video on Friday.
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There’s already been a great documentary – The Rescue, by Oscar-winning filmmaking team Free Solo by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, which used bodycam footage of the rescue – and a six-part Netflix miniseries about it debuts in September.
Each of them has a focus – The Rescue explores how two slightly odd middle-aged British men became the focus of the operation, and the upcoming Netflix series will tell the story from the perspective of the trapped children.
Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson admirably expanded the scope to include everything from the distraught families and religious figures to the governor, as well as how a water engineer aided rescue efforts by collecting rain from the cave and the farmers who sacrificed their crops , diverted flooding.
The overall effect is broader storytelling – not white savior narration, great – but the price is a flattening of the narrative. There are pockets of diffuse heroes throughout – no villains at all, unless you want to blame the rain – and that means a lack of tightness or consistency. Neither the divers nor children, nor government officials, nor families and volunteers really come into focus, they remain as murky as the miles of submerged caves.
There’s also some clunky dialogue and goofy Hollywoodization, like the heavy use of cellos when things get dramatic and the appearance of slow-motion ambulances. “This could be a long night,” the governor says loudly at the start of the crisis, a line that has probably never been uttered at this point. And international movie stars Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton and Colin Farrell try their best to be straight-forward, unglamorous, cookie-eating cave enthusiasts.
“I have no interest in dying,” Mortensen proclaims in dialogue that could be ripped from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Farrell has his own: When rescuers discuss various rescue solutions, he says, “Crazy is better than nothing, and we have nothing.”
The film gets better as viewers delve into the flooded cave and Howard can rely on production designer Molly Hughes and director photographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Here you can hear the hiss of respirators, the clatter of metal cylinders on rocks and divers squeezing through tight spaces, a camera incredibly close. Much of the film was shot in Australia, not Thailand.
The real heart of the film is the rather crazy, brilliant idea of heavily drugging the kids before pulling them out, essentially turning them into an inert, pliable weight that they’re being pulled on and, in the several hours spent doing it, they are to be re-sedated frequently. “These are packages and we are only the deliverers,” says a rescuer.
This makeshift, spontaneous finding of a solution decides between life and death and has also repeatedly brought Howard’s “Apollo 13” to life. Unfortunately, this time he seems to be underground just like the delivery man. Our tip: Start the documentary instead.
“Thirteen Lives,” a Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for “some strong language and disturbing imagery.” Running time: 147 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents Urgently Warned. Some materials may be unsuitable for children under 13 years of age.
Mark Kennedy is there http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits.
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