THIRTEEN LIVES (2022) – Ron Howard Expertly Chronicles True Story of Extraordinary Underwater Rescue

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THIRTEEN LIVES (2022), the latest movie from director Ron Howard, tells the extraordinary true story of the rescue of thirteen young soccer players from a flooded underground cave in Thailand in 2018, and it does so in a straightforward manner without fanfare or fuss.

This is both good and bad.

But since the story on its own is indeed so extraordinary, it’s mostly good.

In June 2018, a group of school-age boys on a soccer team decide to visit a cave before going to one of their teammate’s birthday parties, and they’re accompanied by their coach. Despite the fact that the cave has a history of flooding, it’s still before the monsoon season, so the boys feel they are safe. However, torrential rains hit shortly after they descend into the cave, flooding it and trapping them deep below. By the time their families arrive at the cave looking for them, it’s too submerged in water for them to go inside and search for the boys.

They call the local authorities, who quickly see they are in over their heads, both figuratively and literally. Soon, Navy Seals arrive, but they too cannot get far into the cave to reach the boys, as it’s all underwater in narrow passageways, and there is zero visibility. The call goes out worldwide for help, and two of the most skilled cave divers in the world, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) heed the call and arrive in Thailand where they are looked down upon by the Thai Navy Seals for being too old, and while they certainly are older than the Seals, John points out that they train specifically for diving in and around caves.

John and Rick receive permission to dive into the cave, and after many trials and errors, they eventually, after a six hour plus dive, find the boys and their coach alive. They promise to return to the boys with help. When news breaks that the boys are alive, there is great joy and celebration, but Rick is not happy at all, and as he tells the authorities privately, the boys may be alive now, but there is no way they are getting out of the cave alive. For that to happen, each of them would have to be able to swim underwater with the divers for six to eight hours, and as Rick points out, even when earlier they helped an adult volunteer who had been trapped inside, he had panicked during a much shorter swim.

Faced with a no-win situation, the authorities go silent, frustrating the waiting families, but it’s Rick who suggests a very controversial plan, one that had never been tried before. Even though it is extremely risky, and he tells the authorities point blank that the boys may die, if they try nothing, they will die anyway.

Ron Howard directs this one without any frills, and it plays out like watching news footage or a documentary. It’s really well done. I’m not always the biggest fan of Howard’s movies, but he definitely taps into here the suspense of one of his best movies, APOLLO 13 (1995) starring Tom Hanks which chronicled the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. I enjoyed THIRTEEN LIVES more than some of his recent movies, including SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015). Howard won an Oscar for Best Director for A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), which also won for Best Picture that year.

Here, the most amazing part of Howard’s work is the underwater photography. It’s breathtaking. The scenes of the divers submerged in the caves are claustrophobic, riveting, and heart pounding. And like I said, Howard doesn’t film these like a suspense movie. He simply lets the action unfold, and we are drawn in watching these volunteers risk their lives to save these boys. Just as astounding, the actors, including Mortensen and Farrell, did their own underwater stunts! Even though professional divers were there and available, Mortensen felt so strongly about the authenticity of the project that he and the others trained to dive in caves, and they convinced Howard to let them do it.

And while obviously it was filmed in a massive underwater set and not inside real caves, it was still a dangerous undertaking for all the actors. Their dedication pays off, because these scenes really work.

Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role as diver Rick Stanton. His cool, aloof persona is perfect for a man who spends his time swimming in life-threatening, narrow underwater caves. And he’s not reckless. At one point, he says point blank that as much as he wants to save the boys, if he thinks they (the divers) can’t get out alive, he’s not going in.

Colin Farrell is also superb as fellow diver John Volanthen. He’s the more empathetic of the two, and as a divorced dad of a young son, his own child is always on his mind as he tries to rescue the trapped boys.

Equally as good in a supporting role is Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, another diver who John and Rick call in to join them, as they assemble a team of the best cave divers in the world. And they are particularly interested in Harry because of his expertise, which is part of Rick’s controversial plan to rescue the boys. And when they first tell Harry of this, he refuses, because he knows it could kill the boys, but later, when he sees there is no other alternative, he relents and changes his mind.

The screenplay by William Nicholson based on a story by Don MacPherson is comprehensive and thorough and goes beyond just the story of the divers. There’s a whole other story of other volunteers led by a water expert who understands that the cave is not flooding from below but from the rains above, and so he assembles a team to find and plug up all the sink holes in the area, an undertaking that is nearly as impossible as the underwater diving mission. In fact, the sacrifice among the locals is just as great, as plugging up the sink holes means diverting the water, which will destroy the local farmers’ crops. The farmers agree, knowing they are helping to rescue the boys.

There’s the story of the families, waiting anxiously over the course of seventeen excruciating days, and of the local leadership who have to navigate around the politics of the lives and possible deaths of thirteen children under their watch. It’s a really good screenplay, which comes as no surprise, because William Nicholson has a ton of writing credits, including EVEREST (2015), MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013) and LES MISERABLES (2012) to name just a few.

If there’s any knock against THIRTEEN LIVES it’s that it runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, and with its no frills style, sometimes it seems a bit long. When the divers are underwater, the film had me on edge. When the action returned to above ground, things could have been edited a bit more tightly.

THIRTEEN LIVES is an Amazon Original movie and premiered on Prime Video and in select movie theaters. It’s one you definitely want to see.

Sure, you may already know the ending, but the story of human ingenuity, camaraderie, and bravery it took to rescue these boys under pretty much impossible odds, is one you don’t want to miss.

Thirteen lives could very easily have been lost that day. But they weren’t.

The movie THIRTEEN LIVES successfully celebrates this fact by so expertly telling this amazing story.

—END–

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) – Not As Fun As It Should Be

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As origin stories go, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) is okay, but that’s about the best I can say for it.

There are two main reasons why this tale of Han Solo’s early years didn’t quite work for me. Even though the events chronicled in this movie were about parts of Solo’s life not known before now, all the big parts, the stuff that happened in the original STAR WARS trilogy and in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), are known, and so it’s a challenge when telling a background tale about a character whose fate is signed, sealed, and delivered.  It’s a challenge that I don’t think the filmmakers handled all that well here.

And second, I never quite bought Alden Ehrenreich as Han, the role made famous by Harrison Ford.

A young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to leave their home planet of Corellia in search of a better life where Han can fulfill his dream of being a pilot, but to do so they have to escape the clutches of the evil worm queen, Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Han escapes, but Qi’ra does not. Han vows to return for Qi’ra.

But first Han crosses paths with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a thief, and they attempt to steal the valuable fuel known as coaxium for a crime lord known as Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Along the way, Han meets and befriends the Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Gee, I wonder how that friendship will work out?

Han also discovers that working for Dryden is none other than— Qi’ra! What are the odds? Not very high, I can tell you that! Anyway, this convenient plot point saves Han the trouble of having to go back to Corellia to rescue her.

In order for the heist to be successful, they need a fast ship and a fearless pilot, and so they seek out Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his ship, the Millennium Falcon. Together, this band of merry thieves set out to steal the highly explosive coaxium and sell it to Dryden so they can all get a piece of the proverbial pie. Of course, everyone and their grandmother is a thief and a scoundrel in this movie, and so no one’s to be trusted, which is supposed to be a source of fun, but that’s another place where this film does not score high.

It’s just not as fun as it should be.

First and foremost, Alden Ehrenreich simply didn’t win me over as Han Solo. Sure, he has huge shoes to fill, as Harrison Ford created perhaps the most memorable character in the entire STAR WARS franchise. But I’m not so stuck on Ford that I can’t envision another actor in the role.  I mean, I’m a huge William Shatner fan, but I like Chris Pine just fine as Captain Kirk in the new STAR TREK movies.

Ehrenreich has flashes where he nails the role. I thought his scenes with Chewbacca were very good, and he seemed a natural fit at the controls of the Millennium Falcon. But most of the time when I watched him on-screen I simply didn’t believe that this was the same man who we would later meet in STAR WARS (1977). The film features moments where Han’s hardened cynical personality takes shape, but for the most part, the story here is more interested in making sure the audience knows that in spite of being a smuggler, Han Solo really is a good guy at heart.

Trouble is, based on his actions in the other STAR WARS movies, we already know this.

Ehrenreich also isn’t helped much by the script by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. For some reason, most of the connections to the other STAR WARS movies fall flat, like Han’s line, “I have a good feeling about this,” which is supposed to poke fun at his famous line in STAR WARS, “I have a bad feeling about this,” a line that was repeated in subsequent movies. Again, the point here is to show that Han is a nice guy at this stage of his life and not yet the scoundrel he appears to be when he first meets Luke Skywalker.

But wouldn’t the better story have been to show how Han Solo became that scoundrel? We catch glimpses of these origins in this movie, but not many.

The scene where he pilots the Falcon and completes the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs ties in with a Han Solo quote from the first STAR WARS, but here, he’s already bragging about it and mentions it several times, as if the writers thought audiences wouldn’t have made the connection on their own.

The scene where Han gets his name is right out of THE GODFATHER (1972) and a million other movies where characters need to declare their name as they enter a new country, or in this case, a new planet.

I enjoyed Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, although his appearance here isn’t as memorable as his appearance in two other genre series, as the villainous colonel in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017), and as Haymitch Abernathy in the HUNGER GAME movies.

Emilia Clarke was okay as Qi’ra, although the character is very underdeveloped.  She’s made shady on purpose, as we’re not supposed to know where her loyalties lie, but the unintended result is that we really don’t know much about her. Because of this, I didn’t really care all that much about her.

Donald Glover makes for an enjoyable Lando Calrissian, although he doesn’t really add that much to the character.  We don’t really learn anything new about Lando.

Paul Bettany was solid as the villainous Dryden, but I enjoyed him more as Vision in the AVENGERS movies. Thandie Newton does well in a small role as Val, one of Beckett’s closest friends and fellow thief.

SOLO was directed by Ron Howard, and truth be told it’s been a while since I’ve really enjoyed a Ron Howard film. I was disappointed with his IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015), which I thought was a superficial take on the book on which it was based.  The last movie by Howard that I really enjoyed was FROST/NIXON (2008), and my favorite Howard movie remains APOLLO 13 (1995).

Technically, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY looks fine, although at times the cinematography can be a bit dark. I thought the pacing was off as well.  The first half of the film was heavy on action and early character development suffered.  Later things tended to slow down. I thought the escape from Kessel was the best sequence in the movie.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) worked as a prequel because it was a prequel to an event: the stealing of the Death Star plans, and while audiences knew what happened to those plans and how they were used, we knew nothing about the how they were stolen or about the people responsible for the daring theft.

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is less successful because it’s an origin story for a character, Han Solo, and while it’s interesting to learn a bit about Han’s background, it doesn’t change the fact that audiences know his fate exactly, and so it’s hard to rally around a story about a character when you how that character’s story ends. The origin tale needs to be so good you forget about the Han Solo from the later movies, and that’s simply not the case here.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY also worked because it was clearly a standalone film. It was all in, and the film took no prisoners. While SOLO is being marketed as a standalone movie, there are hints all over the place that a sequel is in order.

There’s also a big reveal featuring another STAR WARS character, but even that didn’t really do much for me.

At the end of the day, the biggest knock against SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is it’s simply not all that fun. A movie about a young Han Solo should be rollicking and gutsy, two things that this movie are not, as it never seems to go as far as it should.

The result is a rather tepid origin tale.

Han Solo deserves better.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.