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Thirteen Lives Reviews Are In, See What Critics Are Saying About Ron Howard’s Cave Rescue Film

Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives
(Image credit: MGM/ Amazon Studios)

In 2018, 12 soccer players and their coach ventured into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand and became trapped when the cave flooded. The search-and-rescue operation made international headlines for weeks, as rescuers from around the world came together to try to save them. Director Ron Howard has proven his ability to adapt real-life stories for the drama of the big screen, and he is now exploring the Tham Luang cave rescue in the upcoming film Thirteen Lives. Critics have screened the film, so let’s see what they have to say.

Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton star as part of the team attempting the rescue of the young footballers. Expectations are high, as the survival drama is already generating 2023 Oscar buzz after receiving the best test scores in MGM studio history. So let’s get right to it, starting with CinemaBlend’s review of Thirteen Lives. Mike Reyes rates the movie 3 out of 5 stars, saying that while survival movie lovers should still be pleased, Ron Howard opts for realism over melodramatic thrills. For example, conversations about the expectation of casualties replace rousing inspirational speeches. Reyes said:

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.

Lovia Gyarkye of THR calls it a reliably tense retelling but says it lacks depth. This critic wishes more time were devoted to the parents’ struggles or how the boys survived, rather than the discomfort the divers felt with the press:

It’s a restrained rendering of the events, a drama that plays, at times, like a documentary. But if Howard’s decision to spotlight the Thai characters in this harrowing narrative is a sound one, there’s an unfamiliar stiffness and self-consciousness in the director’s approach — an inability to marry the fast-paced, no-nonsense heroics that are his strong suit with more emotionally textured storytelling. The resulting awkwardness prevents the movie, for all the surreal tension and bravery it depicts, from feeling urgent or surprising.

Danielle Solzman of Solzy at the Movies rates Thirteen Lives a 4.5 out of 5, lauding Ron Howard for being able to bring the intensity, despite the fact that we already know the ending going into the film: 

Behind the camera, [Ron Howard is] approaching the real-life story as a journalist might. It’s one of the reasons why this film is as compelling as it is. William Nicholson’s script is also true to authenticity at every step of the way. The cinematography is easily the most naturalistic that we’ve seen in recent years. Once we’re in the caves, the only lighting is by way of flashlights, helmet lights, or other similar light sources.

The only problems that Todd McCarthy of Deadline has with Ron Howard’s latest project is that the story was already told in the high-profile documentary The Rescue last year, and Thirteen Lives’ release to streaming after only a week might discourage audiences from seeing it on the big screen as Howard intends: 

One might say that this true-life thriller would be a virtual can’t-miss proposition, given its suspense and humanistic elements. To be sure, the film is highly claustrophobic, dominated by numerous undifferentiated participants and capped by a well-known happy ending, but the lure of creeping suspense and the vivid account of what the rescue involved mostly carries the day.

David Erhlich of IndieWire agrees, at least on the point of Thirteen Lives having to compete with The Rescue, which this critic argues might have been better. This movie garnered a C+, but the review acknowledges that the story of the Tham Luang cave rescue is incredible enough to survive any storytelling deficiencies, and Ron Howard provides an engrossing rendition of the event: 

Told with no frills, less personality, and just enough quiet dignity to sustain itself for 18 days (or 147 minutes), Howard’s serviceable Thirteen Lives is a far cry from the kind of souped-up spectacle some of his Hollywood contemporaries might create out of this material. And yet, its ‘let the story speak for itself’ approach feels misjudged in the aftermath of a documentary so rich with big personalities, knotted with stomach-churning suspense, and shadowed by a lingering sense of ethical ambivalence.

With the Oscar buzz this movie is already garnering, you might want to catch this one in theaters when it premieres Friday, July 29. However, if a trip to the movies isn’t in the cards, Amazon Prime Video subscribers will have access to Thirteen Lives starting on Friday, August 5. In the meantime, check out some more movies based on true-life survival stories, and keep up with what else is coming to theaters soon with our 2022 Movie Release Schedule

Heidi Venable
Heidi Venable

Mom of two and hard-core '90s kid. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Can usually be found rewatching The West Wing instead of doing anything productive.