Thirteen Lives Review: Thai Cave Rescue Gets Detailed & Gripping Retelling

As far as inspirational true stories go, few can probably top the story behind the rescue of 12 boys and one man from a flooded cave. The unbelievable nature of the infamous Tham Luang rescue captivated people around the globe, and now director Ron Howard has offered his spin on it with Thirteen Lives. As the man who brought the gripping Apollo 13 to life, Howard is one of the filmmakers best suited to tackle this story — and he does so with skill and sensitivity. While certain elements feel underdeveloped, Thirteen Lives is an affecting look at one of the most incredible events of the past decade.


In 2018, the world was stunned by the news that twelve members of a Thai soccer team — comprised of boys aged 11 to 16 — and their coach had been trapped inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave by rising water levels when monsoon season came early. Thirteen Lives tells the harrowing story of how aid came from around the world, with everyone from Thai Navy SEALs to rescue divers from England (most prominently played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell) getting involved. As the days stretched on, hope of rescue dwindled. However, as anyone who followed the news story knows, this is a situation that goes far beyond what anyone expected.

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Thira Chutikul and Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives
Thira Chutikul and Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives

At a lengthy two-and-a-half hours long, Thirteen Lives certainly does a good job of conveying just how long this rescue effort took. Spanning more than two weeks and consisting of countless hours-long dives, the actual Tham Luang cave rescue was an arduous process, and one can argue that Thirteen Lives' lengthy runtime really highlights that. To be sure, most of what happens onscreen is engrossing and can help justify the movie's length. Howard's recreation of the dives themselves, comprised of impressive underwater camerawork from DP Simon Christidis and unnervingly realistic cave sets created by production designer Molly Hughes, successfully highlight the dangers of the Tham Luang cave system. Audience members might take a few extra breaths during these scenes just to remind themselves that they can. At the same time, sections in the middle of Thirteen Lives can get a bit repetitive as Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (working from a story by him and Don MacPherson) dig into the nitty gritty of the rescue efforts.

Still, this detailed approach to the story gives Thirteen Lives the opportunity to highlight certain parts of the event that might be overlooked when people recall the news coverage. For example, engineer Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai) worked outside of the cave to divert millions of gallons of water away. Though Thirteen Lives doesn't spend as much time with these characters as it does with the divers, it manages to give a thorough look at the operation itself. Unfortunately, it does this at the expense of other figures involved with this saga, namely the families of the trapped boys. Pattrakorn Tungsupakul gives a strong and emotional performance as one of the mothers awaiting news, but her overall characterization is quite limited. Beyond her portrayal, few loved ones make an impact. Howard has instead chosen to put far more focus on the divers and Navy SEALs who orchestrated the rescue, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, Thirteen Lives could've been made stronger with a more well-rounded approach.

Colin Farrell, Paul Gleeson, and Thira Chutikul in Thirteen Lives
Colin Farrell, Paul Gleeson, and Thira Chutikul in Thirteen Lives

As the two English divers who get the most attention, Mortensen and Farrell do a good job of giving their characters — Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, respectively — more depth than the script does. Mortensen's Stanton is more cynical than Volanthen, and the Lord of the Rings alum effectively depicts the diver's conflicted emotions. Farrell's Volanthen gets to be more earnest and hopeful, and the two make a solid onscreen duo. Tui Thiraphat Sajakul, as Navy SEAL Captain Arnont Sureewong, skillfully walks the line between respect and frustration; though he wishes for the boys to be rescued, the arrival of Stanton and Volanthen causes some friction. Thirteen Lives pays respect to both sides, effectively demonstrating that the successful rescue went beyond the efforts of two people. The boys themselves don't necessarily get a lot of time to make an impact as individuals, but that is by design and still works to the movie's advantage.

Under Howard's efficient direction, Thirteen Lives is a straightforward portrayal of an incredible true story. It does justice to those involved, and while it might've benefited from a deeper dive into what happened outside of the rescue operation, it still knows how to tug at the heartstrings. Those who don't know the finer details of how the boys and their coach were safely removed from Tham Luang will find this to be an insightful watch, while even viewers who closely followed the news reports might find some surprises within the overall proceedings. All told, Thirteen Lives is a solid and compelling watch that stands as a testament to people's resilient spirits.