This review of “The Rescue” was first published after the film’s premiere at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival.
In 2018, 12 children were trapped in a narrow, serpentine cave system in the mountains of Northern Thailand, and wouldn’t you know it? The entire subterranean labyrinth was also flooding with countless gallons of water. The government does everything in their power to save them, the Navy SEALs are enlisted with all their expertise, but in the end, there was one small group of people who saved the day:
Oscar-winning filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) are back with a new documentary whose basic premise is so Hollywood-friendly that even Adam Sandler has already done it. When aliens attacked the Earth in “Pixels,” only a handful of middle-aged arcade game experts were equipped to save the day. In “The Rescue,” only a small group of weekend cave-divers have what it takes to save a dozen children and their soccer coach.
Vasarhelyi and Chin go to great lengths to clarify that the success of this mission belongs to everybody who participated, regardless of their specific field. But “The Rescue” also hangs its whole narrative thread on the idea that these few men — and the esoteric part-time pursuit they love, one that nobody else understands or appreciates — were exactly what was needed to solve this seemingly impossible problem.
As such, no matter how harrowing and borderline unbelievable the underwater cave footage is, no matter how impossible the odds or how genuine the interview footage seems to be, there’s a slickness to the storytelling in “The Rescue” that almost undermines its efficacy as a documentary. All the “Save The Cat” storytelling beats have already come pre-packaged by real life, from the efficient inciting incident to the mid-film revelation that changes the game to the last minute “Whiff of Death” that reminds us just how high the stakes are.
By the time “The Rescue” concludes with a rousing, overblown power ballad called “Believe,” you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just seen the expensive blockbuster version of these events, tidily wrapped up in time for Oscar season.
Then again, it’s hard to blame Vasarhelyi and Chin for leaning into this plucky-underdog narrative, and they do an excellent job of keeping the tragedy of these lost children front-and-center in “The Rescue.” More time is spent with the cave-divers than, for example, the families of the trapped children or the rescue workers from their own country, but aside from humanizing anecdotes about how the divers’ parents just don’t get their hobbies, they’re laser-focused on the reason they’ve been summoned to Thailand: to rescue endangered kids.
Vasarhelyi and Chin also do an excellent job of illustrating just how dangerous this cave system really is. With a skillful combination of CGI maps, which keep the audience oriented, and disturbingly claustrophobic footage in the tight, jagged, rocky underwater caverns, “The Rescue” immerses the audience in a place where — as the film constantly reminds us — only a few rational people would ever be willing to go.
And go they do, again and again, as they search for the missing children and, upon finding them, try to solve the absurdly difficult riddle of getting them out of there. It’s a long and arduous journey for even experienced cave-divers. There’s no conceivable way that a group of malnourished and frightened children are going to be able to make it on their first go.
Watching intelligent people solve a complex problem is riveting, so watching the heroes of “The Rescue” gradually come to the conclusion that their only plausible solution is objectively terrible and probably doomed to failure is one of the film’s many highlights. (The entire Elon Musk debacle, where the billionaire pitched the idea of using underwater submarines, doesn’t even warrant a flippant footnote in Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film; a damning criticism by omission, if nothing else.)
“The Rescue” is an enthralling documentary, with a real-life story so spectacular you can hardly believe it. That’s why the film’s overwhelming polish sometimes undermines the real-life story it’s trying to tell. It’s almost — almost! — too interesting to be true.
“The Rescue” opens in U.S. theaters in October.