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Thirteen Lives Review: Ron Howard Delivers Another Sober-But-Intriguing Look At Humans In Crisis

The Tham Luang cave rescue drama features riveting sequences and subdued performances.

Thira ‘Aum’ Chutikul, Popetorn ‘Two’ Soonthornyanakij, Joel Edgerton, Colin Farrell, and Viggo Mortenson standing in front of kids in a cave in Thirteen Lives.
(Image: © MGM)

Acclaimed director Ron Howard has long been a steady hand when it comes to handling true life drama on the big screen. Epics like Apollo 13 and In the Heart of the Sea, as well as more grounded efforts like Hillbilly Elegy have seen the man hone his craft with real, human stories. His return to the genre with Thirteen Lives gives the director another chance to further his reputation dramatizing the all-too-real events that took place during 2018’s Tham Luang cave rescue. Opting for a less blockbuster styled approach, Howard and his team deliver a sober-but-intriguing, look at people in crisis. 

Over 18 days, thirteen members of the Wild Boars junior soccer team were trapped in the Tham Luang cave system. As efforts were mounted for a rescue attempt, the world’s eyes were watching, with every setback and success making the news. Portraying the stories of those who experienced it first hand, Thirteen Lives shows the audience the viewpoints of everyone from the parents who hoped for their children’s survival to the government and military officials who navigated the perils of bureaucracy and nature to battle the rising waters. 

Among the varying lenses that Thirteen Lives uses to tell its story is that of the international team of divers (Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, and Tom Bateman) that came in to assist the Royal Thai Navy. Revolving through its contingent of real world figures, the movie is a well-rounded story that opts for realism over melodramatic thrills.

The cinematic approach to Thirteen Lives borders on documentarian, foregoing sensationalism for grounded drama. 

When someone mentions Ron Howard in the same breath as historical drama, Apollo 13 is the film that immediately springs to mind. The rousing tribute to a fine hour in the American space program is inspirational and insightful. That being said, that’s not the type of movie that Thirteen Lives is trying to be, as there’s certain segments that show a decision making process that’s the antithesis of “failure is not an option.”

Amid tense segments that show the underwater diving team’s efforts to complete their mission, there are moments when the setup of governmental scapegoats is played out. Conversations of the ethical and practical elements of some rescue plans show characters like Joel Edgerton’s Dr. Harry Harris weighing the pros and cons of the solutions we already know work out. Instead of speeches meant to inspire round-the-clock brainstorming sessions, conversations where the end result may be the expectation of casualties hammer home the stakes. 

Human angles such as those help ground Thirteen Lives in the real drama. Thirteen Lives is still a major studio film that includes impressive spectacle, but also a cast of notable actors that haven’t undergone any massive transformations. But with the way that it’s handled by Ron Howard, as well as everyone else involved, it feels more like a documentary than a narrative feature film. 

Ron Howard’s direction and the cast’s performances do not distract from the story being told on screen. 

Thirteen Lives boasts an ensemble including Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Bateman, and Joel Edgerton, but their presence isn't a distraction from the very real drama in the movie. As the realism-heavy approach anchors the film, so too do their respective portrayals of John Volanthen, Richard Stanton, Chris Jewell, and Dr. Richard "Harry" Harris. In addition to their depicted bravery, there are scenes with light humor that allow those figures to endear themselves to the audience as humans.

A huge debt of credit should go to production designer Molly Hughes and director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, as their work in recreating the atmosphere of the Tham Luang cave system is stellar. Whether it’s prolonged sequences of divers making hours long journeys underwater to save the captive soccer team, or settling for stretches in the cave that the Wild Boars unwillingly called home for those 18 days, the claustrophobia is real, and properly adds dramatic weight.

Other than light moments of emotional punctuation that are included, it’s a straightforward narrative that’s being told within the film. There are few huge moments where the story stops in its tracks to dig into a more dramatized version of events, as one might expect. 

Fans of more flashy historical epics will still enjoy Thirteen Lives, but they might have reservations.

Moviegoers who love to compare historical truth to Hollywood dramatization are obviously going to get a lot out of Thirteen Lives. The efforts that were engaged to painstakingly tell this story with the right balance of humanity and technical prowess are top notch. It’s hard not to admire the results.

Those who are looking for another Apollo 13 are going to have to adjust their expectations, as Thirteen Lives isn’t interested in “selling” the events that happened. Ron Howard may have chosen to tell another story of a miracle outcome in the face of terrible odds, but this time out we’re given a story of hope tempered by expecting the worst and hoping for the best.

Thirteen Lives occupies a rather interesting place in cinema. Both a narrative feature and a National Geographic documentary have already covered the Tham Luang cave rescue at this point, leaving this movie as a relative latecomer to the game. Which will inspire the most skeptical minds to wonder who this movie is for. Even in spite of these questions, however, the film is a solid effort that respects its subject while resisting the temptation to dial up the dramatics. There aren't any rousing French horn solos, or fantasy sequences that envision the lost opportunities of history. Instead, such flourishes are traded for nail-biting suspense through realism and intense craftsmanship.

Mike Reyes
Mike Reyes

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.