Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
At the 91st Academy Awards, which took place in February 2019, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for Free Solo (2018). The following month, it was announced that Kevin MacDonald, who won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for One Day in September (1999), would direct a nonfiction film about the Tham Luang cave rescue, which had occurred during the prior summer. It’s not sure, but things were probably paused or delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, it was announced that Vasarhelyi and Chin would replace MacDonald as directors of this project. I don’t know how much work MacDonald had put into the project before exiting. Yet, this project is different from Free Solo in that there’s a lot more archival footage, such as news clips. Free Solo involved an event that Vasarhelyi and Chin were able to film themselves live. The cave rescue here was instead an event that had already occurred, so it was possible that re-creations had to be implemented.
What’s unfortunate is that National Geographic is the production company behind this project and Nat Geo, as it’s called, could only secure the rights to the cave divers involved in the Tham Luang cave rescue. Nat Geo couldn’t secure the rights to the people who were trapped in the cave. Netflix had acquired those rights, so sadly the directors here couldn’t include that side of the story. This inherently makes this film feel incomplete, but still a strong story in and of itself.
I can see why MacDonald would first be attracted to this project. One Day in September is the documentary that won MacDonald the Oscar, but his most successful documentary in the box office was Touching the Void (2004), which was about a pair of men fighting against geology or some difficult aspect of the Earth to traverse. It was also a survival flick where men are literally descending from a rocky environment. This film is essentially the same thing. Vasarhelyi and Chin’s Free Solo was essentially the same thing as well, which is why they were a good replacement for MacDonald. The difference here is that the men aren’t fighting against geology for the sheer sport of it. The lives of innocent people hang in the balance.
In Touching the Void and Free Solo, the obstacle was the height and the threat of falling to one’s death. Here, the obstacle is the water. The Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand is a long passageway beneath a mountain. A stream of water flows through the cave, but the cave is open to visitors from the fall to the spring time, but the government closes the cave during the summer because of monsoon season and significant flooding that occurs in that cave. Thirteen boys who were touring the cave one day in June 2018 got trapped in the cave when a flash flood hit.
Where the film feels like there’s a giant hole in the narrative is the perspective of those 13 boys. Nat Geo doesn’t have the rights to that perspective, but what gets lost is how the boys got trapped and how they managed to navigate the cave before the cave divers found them a week later. There are nine chambers in the cave, numbered for how far away they are from the entrance. The boys were found in the ninth chamber. How did they get there? Why did they go there?
Knowing those answers would have filled out this story. In terms of how the cave divers retrieved them, it doesn’t totally matter. Hearing the whole thing from the cave divers’ point of view is still compelling. Rick Stanton is the main diver and John Volanthen is the other. Both are British citizens who conduct cave diving as a hobby and as a volunteer with certain cave diving organizations. The film profiles these men, giving us an idea of what kind of men they are personality-wise, which appropriately are not social butterflies. They have friends and fulfilling lives, but clearly they’re the types that don’t mind being alone in claustrophobic spaces deep under the water. It’s interesting to see their diving as being akin to space travel.
This film included footage personally shot by the divers as they were making the rescue. However, re-creations and animations were used to supplement the material. A fictionalized version was made with probably more money budgeted than this film had, but I dare say that the scenes of the men traversing the tight, dark passageway are probably just as good as any movie studio fantasy. The story is also laid out in a tense and thrilling fashion that it keeps one on edge, somewhat.
Rated PG for peril and some language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 47 mins.