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Thirteen Lives Review: Ron Howard’s underwater rescue drama dives deep

Thirteen Lives is a true story that will make you hold your breath.

Thirteen Lives
(Image: © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Our Verdict

We know the ending and it doesn’t matter. The big screen version of the Thai cave rescue is enthralling and exhausting.

For

  • Claustrophobic underwater sequences
  • Excellent performances from Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen
  • A strong eye for detail in re-creating true events

Against

  • Runs for nearly two and a half hours
  • A big screen movie but it’s only in cinemas for a week!

Thirteen Lives director Ron Howard knows a good story when he sees it — especially when it’s a true one. Most recently, it’s taken him into the world of documentary, with films about Pavarotti and The Beatles, but regardless of whether it’s a personal portrait (A Beautiful Mind), a legendary rivalry (Rush) or a potential disaster that had the whole world holding its breath (Apollo 13), the fact that we already know the ending doesn’t matter.

No wonder, then, that he’s returned to another incident that captured the collective imagination of the globe, but this time took place underground in Thirteen Lives, the story of the boys’ football team in Thailand who became trapped in a maze of flooded tunnels.

In June 2018, the 12 boys had gone into the Tham Luang cave, a shrine and visitor attraction, and were trapped by flood water after a torrential thunderstorm. For 18 days, they survived on a rock, 4 km from the mouth of the cave, at the end of a dangerous network of narrow, water-filled tunnels. With little or no food, all that sustained them was meditation led by their young coach and former monk, Ekaphol Chantawong, and the hope of rescue. Above ground, international volunteer cave divers arrived to help the Thai Navy SEALS and came up with a rescue plan that sounded almost impossible. But it was their only option. 

We all know how things turned out – worldwide media saw to that – but, cinematically, being trapped underground comes fraught with all kinds of tensions, if not nightmares. That combination of confinement and impending disaster is dramatic gold and, in telling us a story that is sufficiently recent for us to believe we know it, Howard returns to the format that was part of Apollo 13’s success. 

While we share the fear of the families, unable to affect or be involved in what’s happening and desperate for news, his main aim is to show us what they can’t see. We witness the danger of the rescue, its physical and emotional toll on the boys and their rescuers, the seeming impossibility of the rescue plan and the life and death decisions they have to make, often through a camera lens semi-submerged in the murky waters of those narrow tunnels.  

Thirteen Lives

Thirteen Lives is packed full of tense moments. (Image credit: Metro Goldwyn-Mayer)

It’s a film that reflects Howard’s recent documentaries in style, but one that also goes to great pains to re-create the events with respect and accuracy. The underwater sequences are claustrophobic, the temporary village that springs up outside the cave entrance is a picture of organised chaos and the families waiting for news are touchingly restrained, desperately believing that the divers will rescue their children. He takes a straightforward, linear approach to the narrative, reinforced by William Nicholson’s down-to-earth, considered script. 

Another veteran of bringing true stories to the big screen (Everest, Unbroken and Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom), he carefully avoids the bear traps of a “white saviour” story and mawkish sentimentality, relying instead on low-key dignity with a smattering of dry humour.

Leading the cast as two British divers, retired fireman Rick Stanton and accountant John Volanthen, are Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, a pair of chalk-and-cheese characters with an admirable dedication to saving lives. The plain speaking, practical Stanton has no truck with displays of emotion, while Farrell is the gentle diplomat. With a young son waiting for him at home, he easily empathises with the boys’ parents. They’re joined half way through the film by Australian, Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton) who, away from cave diving, is an anaesthetist – the reason why he’s invited to be part of the team. All three give the strong performances the story and script deserve, Farrell in particular, whose compassion disguises a strength and determination to bring the boys out alive.

With a running time of nearly two and half hours, Thirteen Lives probably tries too hard to re-create the tortuous length of the real rescue. But it’s more than involving enough to not only keep you watching, but make you breathe a huge sigh of exhausted relief by the time the credits roll. It’s regrettable, however, that Amazon has chosen to give it a one-week limited release in cinemas before moving it online - yet another instance of a film made for the big screen being scooped up by a streamer and the audience losing out on its full impact. Those subterranean scenes won’t have quite the same effect at home.

Thirteen Lives is released in selected cinemas on Friday, 29 July and on Prime Video on Friday, 5 August.

Freda can't remember a time when she didn't love films, so it's no surprise that her natural habitat is a darkened room in front of a big screen. She started writing about all things movies about eight years ago and, as well as being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic, is a regular voice on local radio on her favorite subject. 


While she finds time to watch TV as well — her tastes range from Bake Off to Ozark — films always come first. Favourite film? The Third Man. Top ten? That's a big and complicated question .....!