Two British divers emerge from a six-hour dive through a submerged cave beneath a mountain in Thailand. Along with Thai Navy SEALS, they’ve been searching for a youth soccer team and their coach, who disappeared in the cave 10 days prior during an early monsoon rain. “We’ve found the boys. They’re alive,” the first diver, John, announces to a chamber full of SEALS, handing them a waterproof camera. The SEALS clamber over the rocks to take a look. “Be careful who sees that,” the second diver, Rick, warns the men.
News later arrives at base camp that the boys have been found alive. A veritable wave of celebration spreads through the masses, until everyone is smiling and cheering in ecstatic relief. But on their way back to camp, the divers refuse to accept their hero’s welcome, shrugging off reporters with vacant consternation.
An American officer’s attempt at encouraging the divers to learn how to deal with the press properly causes something inside Rick to snap. “What do you want me to tell them? We found the boys; now let’s all watch them die?” The room falls silent. He explains that they had tried to dive out a rescue worker, but he got trapped in an outer chamber, panicked, and almost drowned. Trying to do the same with the children in the inner chamber would be a death sentence. No one in the room had any other plan to offer, so the divers left the camp, keeping the gravity of the situation to themselves.
“Thirteen Lives” is a dramatized account of the events which occurred in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave during the summer of 2018. The relationship between hope and cold realism flows throughout the film, represented, respectively, by Englishmen John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Staton (Viggo Mortensen), a pair of divers called in by the Thai government to help with the seemingly impossible rescue mission. John approaches his interactions with the people involved in the rescue with empathy and understanding, demonstrating his goodwill and optimism even in bleak situations. Rick, on the other hand, has a streak of sarcasm, and refuses to communicate with anything less than brutal honesty. In the end, both John’s optimism and Rick’s realism become indispensable as the rescue unfolds.
When John and Rick initially find the boys, the scene unfolds like an encounter on an alien world. In a pitch black cavern, lights start to flick on in the distance as the boys hear the divers approaching. We initially see a shot of only the boys’ legs as they tentatively creep down from the rocks towards the water. This is when the audience understands the desperation of their situation, and their shock at seeing other people after what must have felt like an eternity of isolation in the darkness. John tells them that they will return the next day with food, doctors — “everything”— although he has no knowledge of whether this can be done. He ignores Rick’s objection that “you don’t know that,” because leaving the boys with some degree of hope is better than leaving them in further uncertainty.
The rescue operation continues to take form as a stirring confluence of volunteers comes in from all over the world. A local British spelunker arrives who has mapped the cave and lends his charts to the team, a Vietnamese American hydrologist puts together a team to help divert rainfall away from the caves below, and the “man of the mountain” helps guide him.
Everyone has a part to play, and everyone takes up their part out of altruism, and the spirit of generosity permeates the events of the film. It is no wonder that, in moments when the rescue seems in jeopardy, like when the SEALS accidentally trap themselves in the cave along with the boys, the truth of the situation must be carefully managed. Because hope for the boys’ survival is the very engine that powers the people to help in the way that they do.
Despite his pessimism, Rick is the one to hatch the plan that will eventually save the boys. He suggests that they call in another British diver, Harry (Joel Edgerton), who is also an anesthetist, so that the boys can be taken out of the cave unconscious. As this method is totally unprecedented, they only inform Harry of their plan after he arrives in Thailand on the pretense of “helping out.” It takes Rick’s hard truth-telling — that the boys will “die anyway” if they don’t attempt this — to get Harry to eventually come around.
Most of the film takes a hands-off approach to storytelling, letting the individuals and their actions do the talking. However, some extra cinematic flair was helpful in bringing the otherwise inexpressive diving scenes to life, and in conveying the sensory confusion of swimming through a dark and confined space. The agitated bubbling of each exhale overwhelms the auditory space and blurs the viewer’s vision, restricting our experience of the cave to the next few seconds, and the next couple feet. There are a number of narrow squeezes, in which we hear the bumping of tubing and the clanging of oxygen tanks on stalactites. With every errant noise, you can’t help but fear that something important might break, leaving the diver to run out of air hours away from the exit.
It is with these risks in mind, as well as the near insanity of the plan to bring the boys out unconscious, that we see the British divers, now numbering five, enter the cave for their final dives. With a troubling return of the rains, Rick is left to make the call on whether to reenter the cave one last time to get the last of the boys. He gives the all clear. With the water levels rising again and the currents intensifying, the divers and the boys barely make it out in one piece.
As the divers walk out of the cave for the last time, we see a shot in which water drips from the ceiling in the foreground, just out of focus, as if we are looking through a blurry window into a dream. With its delicate blurring of the raindrops in front of the triumphant procession of divers, it has an element of fantasy, and reminds us of just how extraordinary these real life events were, and how powerful human determination can be.