If you have that old, familiar feeling after reading that synopsis, you’ve seen either the 2019 fiction film “The 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 fictional movies with major stars, but that usually occurred after some time has passed. There’s barely a year between Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s version and Ron Howard’s, so it remained far too fresh in my mind. Making matters worse, “The Rescue” is 40 minutes shorter and has re-enactments with, and footage shot by, the actual divers who participated in saving the Wild Boar soccer team. It is also harrowing to the point where I, with my fear of drowning and my claustrophobia, considered leaving the theater.
Not once did I flinch during “Thirteen Lives,” despite spending an equal amount of time watching underwater sequences in passageways so narrow that one person can barely fit through, let alone ferry another person to safety. Despite an occasional map being superimposed on the screen, viewers are barely afforded a sense of geography. Howard and his editor, James Wilcox kill the momentum and tension by often cutting between what’s going on underground and the numerous attempts to divert water above. Since they fail to establish any sort of consistency in the timeline between these events, we’re left asking “is this happening at the same time?” It’s disorienting and distracts us from the drama.
Perhaps that distraction is intentional, as William Nicholson’s script is full of two-dimensional versions of the real people involved. “Thirteen Lives” relies on its star power to do the heavy lifting of character development. Real-life divers Rick Stanton, Chris Jewell, John Volanthen, Jason Mallinson and Dr. Richard Harris are played by Viggo Mortensen, Tom Bateman, Colin Farrell, Paul Gleeson and Joel Edgerton, respectively. Each actor is given one characteristic, whether it’s doing an unexpected accent, being a worried father or playing an intensely grumpy realist who doesn’t have faith in his own ability to save these poor kids. That last quirk belongs to Mortensen, who scowls so much he evoked the drill sergeant he played in “G.I. Jane.”