Here’s what we think is one of the best blockbuster movies of 2022. Ron Howard’s riveting take on the June-July 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue.
Thirteen Lives is a well-considered, tense, and expertly crafted biographical survival film. Howard is an auteur, you could argue, in this genre. He’s done it before with Apollo 13 (1995) and Rush (2013). And now he’s delivered a masterclass all over again.
Tension, Teamwork, and British Accents in Thirteen Lives
You may recall the Tham Luang cave rescue of early summer 2018, it was all over the news. And it’s no surprise the true story has led to a feature film.
The real life events will go down as an all-time great survival tale for the ages.
What Ron Howard does, in typical masterclass fashion, is take a true story we know the outcome of… yet it’s still a tense survival drama where you’re wondering just how in the name of cripes the scuba teams pulled off the miraculous survivals.
In real-life, as the crisis unfolded in Northern Thailand, the local government requested assistance from international experts.
British diving rescue experts Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) were called in to help locate the boys, who were all presumed dead at this point.
However, and amazingly, after 10 days they found them!
Their boys’ coach taught them about meditation to keep their rising panic under control.
They also tried tunnelling out of the cave and managed to dig a pretty nifty hole, between bouts of drinking water dripping into their area and sleeping.
Stanton and Volanthen assure them they’ll be back soon. Then return (in an enormous and highly dangerous—terrifying for most people—underwater trek) to the entrance of the cave.
There they’re able to inform the rescue party all 13 are still alive. There’s a big celebration the boys are still alive. This includes the epic line, “The old men found the boys!”
However, what follows is the reality check. Volanthen, level-headed in that typically British kind of way, realises there’s no chance of getting the boys out of the underwater network.
It’s a six hour dive there and back, which even he and Stanton find tough going.
The reality check calls for drastic measures, so they bring in Australian anaesthetist and cave diver Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton). In real-life, for his efforts, in 2019 he won Australian of the Year!
However, initially he was very sceptical about the survival chances of the boys with the unprecedented plan the rescue team hatched.
Howard doesn’t shy away from the nitty gritty of it all—the sheer improbability of the process they used to get the 13 boys out of there. It’s really quite something, portrayed effectively in the film.
You truly realise just how unprecedented and desperate the situation was.
And just how cool, calm, and collected all the rescue team needed to be to make the mission a success. It was a remarkable achievement. Right up there with the likes of the 1972 Andes Plane Crash and other feats of human bravery.
Howard is on fine form directing the film, with Farrell and Mortensen also making for compelling viewing as they steer the rescue mission.
We found it all excellent viewing—riveting, edge of your seat stuff.
Although two Navy Seals did, sadly, die during the rescue attempt there’s no denying the life-affirming nature of Thirteen Lives. It was about 10,000+ volunteers (locally and worldwide) working together to save 13 young lads.
It’s a depiction of humanity at its best.
And that’s one of the reasons we liked the film so much. It’s not been a great time of it in recent years, but here’s a story that’ll put your confidence back in the goodness of (at least some) human beings.
The Production of Thirteen Lives
The film launched in select theatres in July 2022, then (as it’s an Amazon production) began streaming on Amazon Prime Video from August 2022.
The film had a budget of $55 million. The shoot began on March 29th 2021 in Australia, with some scenes shot in Thailand.
In the clip with Vanity Fair above, Ron Howard explains how the crew went about filming one of the key scenes. Early on in the shoot, Viggo Mortensen approached Howard and said he wanted him and co-star Colin Farrell to do all the diving scenes.
That means every time you see the lead characters on screen… it’s really the actors! Although Farrell, reportedly, found the extensive diving requirements quite claustrophobic and unpleasant (check out James Cameron’s The Abyss in 1989 to see why it’s often scary).
In fact, some of the actors reported hiding their sense of panic from Ron Howard to make sure the scenes were done with no problems.
That, again, highlights how terrifying the real rescue was.
To recreate the cave, sets were constructed in large buildings with Olympic swimming pool sized tanks. Long tunnels could then be flooded with 20ft of water, which could also be drained rapidly to promote the safety of the cast and crew.
But whenever water is involved, it’s only ever going to be a dangerous shoot.
However, Rick Stanton (who Mortensen plays in the film) praised Thirteen Lives’ accuracy when covering the real-life events. He was on set for the shoot to provide guidance with it all.
The only main difference was for cinematic reasons, depicting the water as less muddy than it really was. Stanton put it like this:
“That would be impossible to demonstrate because then the viewers would not see anything.”
The other main hero of the rescue mission, John Volanthen, isn’t a film buff. He had no idea who Colin Farrell is and instead wanted Rowan Atkinson to play him in the film. Mr. Bean probably would have ruined the tone of things, though.
To note, Farrell (who’s Irish) and Mortensen (American) both put on excellent London-based British accents for the film! We enjoyed listening to those two a lot—to lighten the tone of the script, they make frequent references to the types of biscuits they prefer eating.
A nice touch, we thought, as us Brits do eat too many of the damned things.
Mortensen is now 64, by the way, and we hope we can age as gracefully as that SOB can, gosh darn it.
As for the young guys playing the 13 survivors, the actors were all picked from Northern Thailand. Only one of them could speak English, so Howard relied on him as a translator for the other boys.
Finally, the poor coach of the boys (Ekapol Chanthawong) who went through the ordeal worried if he’d got them all killed, said this at a press conference:
“We were thinking, when we get out of the cave, we would have to ride the bicycle home.”
Referring to the bicycles they’d all left outside the cave, believing the incident hadn’t garnered international attention.
Well, it did. And this is their story, told in emphatic style. With the film dedicated to the Thai Navy Seals, Saman Kunan and Beirut Pakbara, who died as a result of the successful rescue mission.