Reviewed by: Shawna Ellis
Young soccer team trapped in a flooding cave in Thailand
Based on a true event in 2018
Extraordinary rescue with international help
Caves in the Bible
Seemingly hopeless situations
Bravery / courage / selfless heroism
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Colin Farrell … John Volanthen
Joel Edgerton … Harry Harris
Viggo Mortensen … Rick Stanton
Tom Bateman … Chris Jewell
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Storyteller Productions [England]
Magnolia Mae Films
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|Distributor||United Artists Releasing, a joint venture of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Annapurna Pictures|
“5000 people, 17 countries, 1 miracle that united the world”
With around 160,000 people dying each day, what makes the world become so riveted when thirteen lives hang in the balance? Over the course of eighteen tense days, millions watched and waited to learn the fate of the Wild Boars soccer team in Thailand after the young boys and a coach were trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave. Much of the world turned its attention to this dramatic story, and over 5,000 rescuers took part in freeing the team. What is it that makes us focus so tightly on certain events while all around us there is death and danger that goes largely unnoticed?
Director Ron Howard seems drawn to tense rescues, and has had tremendous previous success in crafting a story around dramatic real life events such as in the award-winning film “Apollo 13.” In speaking of his new film “Thirteen Lives,” Howard said that his goal was not to reproduce the events as a documentary, but to show the emotion, the drama and the tension of the rescue. He has certainly succeeded in that, yet “Thirteen Lives” differs greatly from “Apollo 13” in that it is less grand, less theatrical and less polished (perhaps intentionally). Instead of the vast unfathomable reaches of space, we are constricted and immersed in the narrow murky corridors of a cave, trapped with those 12 boys and their coach. We feel the utter desperation of the rescue team as they seek to find a way to bring them to the surface. With Howard’s attention to detail and realism as well as the freedom he gives the actors, it all feels very grueling and tense beyond imagining.
It must be hard to make a film in which almost everyone knows the eventual outcome and can remember seeing the actual news footage just a few years ago. What can be added to this story (that most people think they already know) to make it worthy of viewing? Ron Howard took a chance that there is something more worth exploring in this well-known story, and I think he succeeded.
The actors Howard selected fit their real-life counterparts very well, both in physical similarity and characterization. Actors took their roles seriously, studying the voices, movements and motivations of the heroes. Several of them insisted on learning to dive so they could do all of the underwater work themselves rather than relying on stunt doubles. This allowed the camera to show their faces as they squeezed through the passages, adding to the realism. The diving rigs are authentic, cumbersome and heavy, and the actors did not have to fake being exhausted, scraped and fearful as they filmed their scenes.
The boys in the film were mostly non-actors, perhaps making them more authentic and believable. I wish that we could have spent a little more time in exploring their characters or those of their parents, but the majority of the run-time is dedicated to the predicament itself and a handful of rescuers. A few storylines present themselves in different elements of the rescue, showing the collaborative effort of many nations working desperately to save these thirteen lives. As often happens, certain characters are combined and others omitted to maintain the movie’s flow.
Selfless heroism is on full display. Characters use all their various skills and risk their lives even when they think that recovery of the team is hopeless. The real life cave diver Rick Stanton said this in an interview shortly after the rescue: “We didn’t have to do it. It’s not our job. But why wouldn’t we?” The collective effort of thousands of people to help those in need is indeed moving and a major element of what Ron Howard wanted to highlight in his film.
While it is a dramatic and effective story, don’t expect it to move quickly or to be flashy in any way. This is a tense and harrowing film, but realistic and grounded. It seems visually authentic with little CGI but instead practical effects and real flooded chambers in a very good mock-up of the cave. Viewers can expect a visceral experience with the constant trickling and rushing of water, the clanging and scraping of heavy air tanks, the rasping of breaths, all meshed with a subdued but effective musical score. I found the movie not exactly entertaining, but certainly gripping and effective, despite knowing the outcome.
Thankfully there is relatively little content of concern in this film, with brief strong language, perilous situations, and several culturally accurate Buddhist religious scenes.
LANGUAGE: Sporadic strong language, including sh*t (2), bullsh*t, p*ss, one use of h*ll, and one of the f-word when in duress. One man calls another “knob” and the term “bloody” is used once. One misuse each of Christ and Jesus Christ.
NUDITY AND SEXUALITY: A man is seen sitting shirtless on a bed, wearing boxers (brief and non-sexual). A boy lifts his shirt to show his shrunken belly. No sexual references other than the use of “knob” as a playful insult.
VIOLENCE: Peril abounds throughout with danger of drowning, suffocation and entrapment in the cave. We see multiple injections being given (through wetsuits, not into bare skin). Scraped hands and feet are seen. There are a few instances of substantial bleeding but nothing gory or gratuitous. An item ricochets and hits a rescue worker, causing injury. Divers struggle to breathe, occasionally panic and a man runs out of oxygen. We see a lifeless body.
OCCULT: Frequent lingering shots of a shrine with offerings, toward which people bow in reverence. A couple of prolonged scenes show Buddhist monks offering prayers. A monk blesses bracelets that are later seen as good luck charms. Prayers appeal to an idol and the spirits of the forest and mountains. The coach leads the boys in guided meditation to calm them.
The Tham Luang cave rescue shows the extent to which the world can rally to help those in danger and how much we pity the one who is trapped and helpless in the dark. Millions were spent on rescue efforts, farmers sacrificed their fields to allow water diversion, volunteers spent weeks away from their families and jobs, media camped out to give constant updates, and two men lost their lives in this effort to save the soccer team (one during the rescue, another later due to infection). One thing that has not happened is that the Thai government has not demanded that the boys or coach pay back what was spent to save them. There was no insinuation that the boys should have been able to rescue themselves. There was no demand by the cave divers that the boys and coach should in any way “earn” their rescue. Instead they were saved from certain death and their recovery was celebrated as a miracle.
Although everyone’s hearts went out to those boys as if they were in a unique situation, each of us has been trapped by sin and is need of spiritual rescue. Romans 6:23 tells us that the wages of sin is death… and this is certain and inescapable by our own pitiful effort. While in the cave, the boys attempted to dig their way out using rocks to scrape at the cave walls. Their efforts were completely futile, just as our efforts at saving ourselves from our own certain death are fruitless. No amount of pitiful scraping away at out sin debt will ever remove it. Spiritually, we are just as helpless and hopeless as those trapped boys. Thankfully we have a rescuer in the Lord Jesus Christ, who does not expect us to save ourselves. He does not ask us to earn our salvation or to pay back His enormous sacrifice… because He knows we simply can’t. But this salvation does not just happen automatically. We have to ask for it and yield to it.
In one scene toward the end of the film, the last boy to be rescued rushes up to the divers with a smile on his face and thrusts his arms high in the air with gusto so the rigging can be slipped over his body. He completely trusts and yields himself up to the rescuers, allowing himself to be incapacitated so that he can be carried to safety. Imagine how we would feel if the boy had insisted on staying in the cave to continue the fruitless digging effort, or if he just sat there to wait for the water to subside rather than going with the divers willingly, or if he told them he was better off in the cold dark cave than in the light of the surface. “Foolish! Stubborn! You are going to die!” we would want to cry out. Yet this is the response of many to the life-saving news of the gospel.
Salvation is at hand, and many refuse to accept it. They believe that they are fine just as they are, or they want to wait “just a little longer” until the time is right, or they can’t believe that Jesus has really paid it all so they try to pay for it themselves. If you are in this position, carefully consider this… the rescue plan is already in place, the sacrifice has already been made, and the Savior is standing at the ready waiting for you to come willingly to Him.
Why is the world the way it is? If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving, would He really create a world like this? (filled with oppression, suffering, death and cruelty) Answer
Are you good enough to get to Heaven? Answer
How good is good enough? Answer
Will all mankind eventually be saved? Answer
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.