‘Thirteen Lives’ Film Review: Ron Howard Spelunks Cautiously Into Cave-Rescue Tale

On the heels of two docs about the rescue of a Thai soccer team, Howard could have used less restraint and more emotion in retelling this story

Thirteen Lives
Vince Valitutti/MGM

Watching “Thirteen Lives,” Ron Howard’s new docudrama, is a lot like having deja vu all over again — all over again. It’s the third film in four years based on the seemingly impossible rescue of 12 trapped children and their soccer coach from a flooded cave system in Thailand in 2018, and although it’s extremely competent, it fails to add a new perspective to the story or a distinctive approach to its telling.

Hot on the heels of Tom Waller’s 2019 drama “The Cave” and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s award-winning 2021 documentary “The Rescue,” Howard’s film stars Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, two highly experienced cave divers who traveled to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave after an unexpectedly early start to monsoon season trapped 13 people deep in its recesses, behind incredibly long, narrow, dangerous underwater caverns.

The Thai government had already begun pumping water out of the system and employed their own Navy SEALs to rescue the kids, but cave diving is a unique skill with only a small number of experts in the entire world. It fell to Stanton, Volanthen and an elite team of experts — including professional anesthetist Dr. Harry Harris, played by Joel Edgerton — to navigate the labyrinthine death trap, locate the missing children, and concoct a death-defying, unprecedented rescue plan.

Howard is one of Hollywood’s most accomplished mainstream dramatists, bringing slick and efficient storytelling prowess to Oscar-friendly, based-on-a-true stories like “A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13” and “Frost/Nixon.” At his best, he knows when to pluck a heartstring and when to wail on that sucker like Buckethead in an epic metal riff. The narrative of the Tham Luang cave rescue seems tailor-made to Howard’s strengths, coming pre-packaged in a tidy narrative with clear emotional investment, high stakes and (literal) twists and turns.

So it’s odd to find the filmmaker operating so perfunctorily in “Thirteen Lives,” establishing these events but going out of his way to avoid sentimentality. His restraint would be admirable if he hadn’t overdone it.

The film — written by William Nicholson (“Everest”), from a story by Nicholson and Don MacPherson (“The Gunman”) — introduces the children just hours before they’re endangered. They play soccer, they joke about SpongeBob, and then they declare that they should all go to a cave just because, you know, all kids love spelunking. Who can’t identify with spelunking? What other character traits could they possibly need? Surely that’ll do for the entire rest of the movie, which basically treats them like a MacGuffin.

“Thirteen Lives” wastes no time trapping those children and their coach, played by James Teeradon Supapunpinyo, and then moving the film’s perspective to their terrified parents, and abandoning them to focus on local governor Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit), who is apparently being set up by the government to take all the blame if the operation fails.

But after establishing people in peril, families in torment and a government miring itself in finger-pointing, “Thirteen Lives” almost completely drops those characters and their subplots in favor of two cave divers from the U.K., who struggle to gain the access and support they need to do what only they can do. Mortensen brings a grizzled determination to his role, and Farrell adds a soupçon of sentiment because he, too, is a father, but the decision to sideline all the most emotional storylines in favor of grim problem-solving denies Howard some of the most powerful tools in his arsenal.

It doesn’t help that the documentary “The Rescue,” a thorough and exhilarating telling of the exact same tale, already approached this story in nearly the same way. The structures of both “The Rescue” and “Thirteen Hours” — the quick set-up, establishment of conflicts, careful outlining of geography, ramping of stakes — are distractingly similar, and Vasarhelyi and Chin’s version is clearer, more intense and just as breathtakingly photographed. It’s not just an informative documentary; it’s significantly more riveting in all its storytelling choices.

The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me By Your Name”) is sharp and moist, and the editing by James D. Wilcox (“Hillbilly Elegy”) is determined and forceful, but it’s not in service of a distinctive version of these events. “Thirteen Lives” covers what we know and have already seen instead of shining a light on, or adding depth to new facets of the disaster.

With “Thirteen Lives,” Ron Howard has succeeded in telling the Hollywood version of this story, adding a little star power but not much else. It’s basically what happened, told in a basic way, by talented people with no additional zest or insight, for audiences who normally — perhaps — wouldn’t watch a film without famous actors or the imprimatur of a director like Howard, who once again proves that he can make a very decent movie. Even if it’s not necessarily a great or memorable one.

“Thirteen Lives” launches globally Friday on Amazon Prime Video after opening last week in U.S. theaters.