The true-life story of the 33 Chilean miners who survived for months underground as superiors fought to rescue them and the world watched the efforts in real time is a gripping tale of fortitude, perseverance, religious faith and scientific ingenuity. The fact that no one trapped in the mine perished over the course of the 69-day ordeal is a legitimate miracle, and the details of the events should be shared with as many people as is physically possible.
It can’t be overlooked that a motion picture based on the burial and subsequent rescue mission never fully works because 99% of the time, when you know a film’s resolution, the story’s unable to generate any dramatic tension or land with any emotional impact. While not quite going through the motions, The 33 dutifully recounts the events of the 2010 mine collapse as it follows the men into the dark, stays with them during their darkest hours, then accompanies them back out to safety. If you tracked the group’s progress on live television as it happened several years back, it will look very familiar. If you didn’t, you likely still know where the movie’s going, and how it intends on getting there.
No pun intended, but The 33 doesn’t dig nearly as deep as it should. Directed by Patricia Riggen and adapted from Hector Tobar’s book by three credited screenwriters, The 33 gives us snapshots of a handful of the miners before they venture into the danger zone. The men largely are characterized by bite-sized (and clichéd) defining traits, so we’ll easily recognize them in the dark and dirty mine. There’s the soon-to-be father; the homeless guy who’s arguing with his sister; the hen-pecked clown who has a mistress the whole town recognizes; and (my least favorite) the old man who’s about to retire. The overcooked script, which often gets in the way of the actual facts, shoehorns in lines like, “Two weeks, and you’re a free man!” Guess again, partner.
The 33 miners are 2,300 feet below the surface with tragedy strikes. Through no real fault of their own, the mountain into which the men are tunneling gives way, and Riggen relies on a mix of CGI dust and rock to recreate the natural disaster in a competent but short-of-thrilling sequence. The collapse is a necessary evil, the point we have to reach before the movie finally can begin. And it’s true, from this moment on, character development begins to drag The 33 toward the light. Strong personalities emerge, both in the mine and on the surface, as passionate performances by Antonio Banderas (as the miners’ unofficial spokesperson) and Rodrigo Santoro (as a structural engineer) start to cut through the melodrama to try and help The 33 stand out.
The set, itself, is an interesting character. Given the fact that The 33 has to spend more than two months in a hole (a hole large enough to comfortably contain a platoon of dirty miners, but still, a limitation for any movie), Riggen and her team come up with inventive ways to keep us invested in the cramped space, without making you eyeball the exits in a claustrophobic panic. The situation improves once the team outside the mountain figures out how to reach the trapped miners, and to eventually communicate with them. Again, if you paid any attention to this story as it was developing in 2010, these narrative marks are mere inevitabilities, not compelling twists.
Because I was less invested in the human drama than Riggen likely would prefer, it allowed me to noodle over her downright bizarre casting. When tasked with finding a fiery and headstrong actress to play Chilean sister Maria Segovia, who leads a communal effort to support the miners from outside the mountain, Riggen casts… Oscar-winning French actress Juliette Binoche? Not that Binoche is bad. She isn’t. And I stand behind the notion that Binoche can play any type – but asking her to play a Chilean instead of finding a talented Chilean actress strikes me as insulting. Also, a late-game appearance by James Brolin is head-scratchingly random, and he quietly disappears as quickly as he arrived.
The major factor really working against The 33, however, is one that Riggen and her crew couldn’t have predicted. This year has seen a number of humans-versus-nature dramas, from the sweeping Everest to the exaggerated San Andreas and the gripping Norwegian catastrophe thriller The Wave. Even Sir Ridley Scott’s The Martian utilized several of the gimmicks The 33 needed to stay interesting, with scientists racing a clock to rescue stranded, innocent victims. If you saw any of these films prior to checking out The 33, then the mine disaster will strike you as overly-familiar. If, like me, you watched all of them, then The 33 will feel like an absolute slog.