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.
Last year, the documentary The Rescue (2021) told the story of the Tham Luang cave rescue in the summer of 2018. Twelve teenage boys and their football coach became trapped deep inside a totally flooded cave. The group was actually stuck four kilometers inside. The documentary depicts the 18 days that it took for scuba divers to figure out how to get the 13 individuals through the miles and miles of submersion. One criticism is that the documentary, produced by National Geographic, didn’t have the rights to tell the story of those 13 individuals. National Geographic only had the rights to tell the story of the scuba divers and the others involved with organizing the operation. The documentary never gave us the perspective of the 13. Legally, it couldn’t.
Director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13), along with screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator and Shadowlands), might have been hampered in the same way. This film, produced by MGM, might have only had the rights to tell the story of the scuba divers and the others involved on the outside of the cave, and not those trapped on the inside. If so, the title might be a bit misleading. For those who have seen The Rescue, which made the shortlist for the 94th Academy Awards, one might expect that this film might tell the other side of that story. However, Howard made this film concurrently to the documentary, not aware of how the documentary would go.
Unfortunately, the Nat Geo production did get distribution before this feature, so comparisons to the documentary are inevitable. No doubt, the doc has more efficient storytelling. Howard and his team are capable of doing more and going further than the documentary when they didn’t need to do so. For example, Howard starts by depicting the boys playing soccer and letting us know they’re called the Wild Boars football team, which again is misleading. It makes us think that the boys will be the protagonists here. Many films have done that kind of cold open to establish a situation or set a tone, but often those cold opens are spectacular or compelling.
One example is Scream (1996), a film in which Ron Howard appears. The opening involves someone who isn’t the protagonist but that opening is so spectacular and compelling as to set a tone for the rest of the film that’s engaging. Scream was a horror film and many horror films have spectacular cold opens that often don’t focus on the protagonist. Otherwise, a film usually starts with some kind of focus on the protagonist. Howard did this exact thing for Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Within the first minute of both of those films, we see and start focusing on the protagonist. We see Tom Hanks who plays the protagonist in Apollo 13 and Russell Crowe who plays the protagonist in A Beautiful Mind right away. Here, the presumed protagonists don’t appear until about 16 minutes into the film. That’s quite a stretch unless Howard considered this feature as more an ensemble piece.
Viggo Mortensen (A History of Violence and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) stars as Rick Stanton, a retired firefighter who lives alone. We don’t get much more information about who he is, other than the fact that he doesn’t like children, which probably explains why he doesn’t have any. We also gather that he isn’t religious. He’s also very blunt.
Colin Farrell (The Batman and Minority Report) co-stars as John Volanthen, an IT consultant who does have a son. He sees on television that 13 people have been trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. He calls Rick and tells him that their names are on a list of people to call for cave diving expertise. There’s even a question of whether or not they should be there. The documentary though has no such question. The documentary really sells us on why and how Rick and John are cave diving experts. The documentary makes you believe that these two guys are top of their field. Howard’s film here doesn’t make you believe that. It barely convinces as to why they’re the protagonists in this narrative.
The production design is pretty incredible. It’s likely Howard shot part of this film in the actual location. Some of it was probably built specifically for this film. Having the actors constantly in water or under water had to be tough from a direction standpoint. Howard is able to convey the claustrophobia, the arduous trek and the massive amounts of water that had to be combated. However, the characters and the people involved didn’t pop here as they did in the documentary.
Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby and Kinky Boots) also co-stars as Harry Harris, an anesthetist who is apparently friends with Rick and John. Harry is also part of a list of cave divers with some renown but again this film doesn’t sell us on that point. Harry doesn’t show up in this film until over a hour into it. The documentary introduces him to us within the first 10 minutes and makes him feel integral. This film would have us believe that Harry is just some random dude that shows up. Harry is instrumental though to the actual rescue and the depiction of that is somewhat thrilling.
There’s a little bit here about the Thai people, including the governor. It also gives us a bit more insight into Thai culture. Yet, it still falls short of what it could have been. To its credit, the film short-changes the white people in terms of making us care about them. The film is competent in telling the story but it’s middlebrow in terms of making this film something worthy of further attention.
Netflix is scheduled to release its series called Thai Cave Rescue about this same story a month later in September 2022. It will be interesting to compare it to this and to Nat Geo’s The Rescue.
Rated PG-13 for some language and unsettling images.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 29 mins.
Available on Amazon Prime.