On 23 June 2018, 12 members of a Thai junior football team and their coach became trapped deep in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system by rising flood water. And if you don’t know what happened next, you must have been living in your own personal cave during the 18-day search-and-rescue operation. But despite the fact that we all know the outcome, and that it’s the third film in as many years to tell the story, Ron Howard’s account of the drama is compulsively watchable and breathlessly tense.
This version of the events, which stars Viggo Mortensen as laconic British cave diver Rick Stanton and Colin Farrell as his biscuit-hoarding fellow expert John Volanthen, follows the Bafta-nominated 2021 documentary The Rescue. But while both films are essentially telling the same story, there’s a marked difference in tone. Thirteen Lives is sober, efficient and even-handed, where The Rescue has a tendency towards strident scoring and emotional engineering.
Howard’s skilful, unshowy handling of events belies just how complex an undertaking this is as a piece of storytelling. The cave divers are key figures, but the film also follows the contribution of Thai groundwater specialist Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai). It weaves in the Thai navy Seals, the children’s families, and touches on the political backdrop. The rescue, Thirteen Lives stresses, was a team effort; and likewise this thrilling piece of film-making. Plaudits are due to cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and to the entire sound department for crushing the very air out of the cinema with an unbearably claustrophobic array of sub-aqua sound design.