If you have that old, familiar feeling after reading this synopsis, you’ve either seen the 2019 fictional filmThe cave” or last year’s spectacular documentary, ”The rescue.” The latter film haunted my viewing of “Thirteen Lives” in a way that may seem unfair. Granted, there have been several excellent documentaries that led to less-than-stellar, big-star fiction, but that usually happened after some time. There is barely a year apart Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi‘s version and Ron Howard’s, so it stayed all too fresh in my mind. To make matters worse, “The Rescue” is 40 minutes shorter and features re-enactments and footage shot by the actual divers who participated in rescuing the Wild Boar football team. It’s also harrowing to the point where, with my fear of drowning and my claustrophobia, I considered leaving the theater.
Not once did I flinch during “Thirteen Lives,” despite spending just as much time watching underwater sequences in hallways so narrow that one person can barely fit through, let alone carry another person to safety. Despite an occasional map superimposed on the screen, viewers barely have a sense of geography. Howard and his editor, James Wilcox killing momentum and suspense by frequently cutting between what’s going on underground and the numerous attempts to divert the water above. Since they fail to establish any kind of consistency in the timeline between these events, we are left asking “is this happening at the same time?” It is disorienting and distracts us from the drama.
Perhaps that distraction is deliberate, which William Nicholson‘s script is filled with two-dimensional versions of the real people involved. “Thirteen Lives” relies on its star power to do the heavy lifting for character development. Real-life divers Rick Stanton, Chris Jewell, John Volanthen, Jason Mallinson and Dr. Richard Harris is played Viggo Mortensen, Tom Bateman, Colin Farrell, Paul Gleeson and Joel Edgerton, respectively. Each actor gets one quality, whether it’s doing an unexpected accent, being a concerned father, or playing an intensely grumpy realist who has no faith in his own ability to save these poor children. The final distinction belongs to Mortensen, who scowls so much that he evoked the drill sergeant he played in “GI Jane.”