Ron Howard proves he’s still a master of suspenseful filmmaking, even when most viewers know a story’s outcome, with Amazon Prime’s Thirteen Lives.
His Apollo 13 (1995) told the story of the amazing space mission that saw three astronauts’ lives threatened when their vehicle malfunctioned while heading toward the moon. Even though the audience knew the astronauts all survived, the movie was a true nailbiter, with heart and amazing performances.
Thirteen Lives retells the story of the 12 boys and their coach who got trapped in a Thailand cave during a monsoon, and the daring divers who managed to not only find them, but retrieve them in a seemingly impossible operation. The boys and their coach survived, while a Royal Thai Navy SEAL diver perished.
The story is already the subject of an excellent documentary and, oddly enough, another narrative film, Cave Rescue, released on the same day as Thirteen Lives. Howard, in a testament to his strengths as a director, makes his 147 minutes on the subject memorable.
Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play real-life cave-diver hobbyists John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, who arrive in Thailand, dive into those flooded caves, and find the boys and their coach. With the help of other expert divers and a doctor (Joel Edgerton), the team manages to put the trapped people to sleep, equip them for a dive, and pull them through an impossible underwater maze to safety.
Technically, the film is a marvel, with Mortensen, Farrell and others often doing their own diving in underwater sets that look very real. Howard captures the claustrophobia and near panic those divers must’ve gone through, and the sheer terror the rescued must’ve endured. They knew, when they were injected with anesthesia, that they might not wake up. Watching their prone, tied bodies as their legs and feet scrape underwater rock is tense stuff.
Farrell and Mortensen are perfectly cast, with Farrell’s Volanthen a little warmer and more affable than Mortensen’s slightly more pessimistic Stanton. Both characters, with their different attitudes, come off as heroes—as they should. The two cave divers are legendary, as are those who assisted. The film tastefully handles the death of the one heroic driver.
Most importantly, the film is virtually schmaltz- and melodrama-free; the subject matter is treated with the seriousness and respect it deserves.
As with Hulu’s recently released Prey, Thirteen Lives went straight to streaming. It truly deserved more big-screen time than the limited, one-week release it got in just a few big cities.
Thirteen Lives is now streaming on Amazon Prime.