Culture Magazine

Thirteen Lives [Media Notes 78]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

I recently watched Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives (2022), based on the survival and rescue 12 boys and their coach from Than Luang cave in Thailand during the summer of 2018. Since I hadn’t paid very close attention to the rescue as it was unfolding over three weeks I learned a lot about the rescue that I hadn’t known, much of it very interesting, but that isn’t why I watched the film. Why did I watch the film? Because I wanted to watch a film and thought it would be interesting. Interesting, OK. But also dull. FWIW, I watched it in two sittings.

Come to think of it, I also watched it because I had liked Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), which was about a mission that had to be aborted because an on-board explosion crippled the spacecraft. That was an exciting film, though I knew how it ended, just as I knew how Thirteen Lives ended. That is, in neither case was suspense and excitement generated by guessing how things would turn out. But one film was exciting while the other was not. And both ran over two hours.

Much of Thirteen Lives, perhaps half the screen time, showed us divers squeezing through narrow dark spaces. Now and then there were snags, but mostly it was just dark and narrow. Watching three men trying to survive in a cramped space capsule didn’t feel so constricted. That’s one thing.

More important, the Apollo story was tightly focused on the three astronauts, plus a handful of the ground crew. The cave rescue was much more diffuse. In time it settled on two lead divers, and then four, but we also had the trapped boys, and a diverse array of others involved in the rescue. We could see drama in the faces and postures of the divers, but we never got inside their heads. Nor inside the heads of any of the trapped boys, or their coach.

In the end it was a film of convoluted and cramped surfaces.

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