Ron Howard is not nearly as competent as the brave British divers who rescued 12 kids and their soccer coach from a Thailand cave in 2018.
Those strong souls deftly swam for hours through long stretches of rocky, narrow, treacherous tunnels with relative ease — and became world heroes in the process.
In attempting to dramatize their harrowing story in the film “Thirteen Lives,” in theaters on July 29 and on Amazon Prime Aug. 5, the director doesn’t make quick, from-the-gut decisions the way that the intrepid team did. Instead, he takes a chill ride on the Lazy River.
Running time: 147 minutes.
Rated PG-13 (some strong language, unsettling images). In theaters July 29; on Prime Video Aug. 5.
His movie craves an enlightening artistic point of view, because viewers have already watched a very good, straightforward National Geographic documentary about the operation — “The Rescue” on Disney+ — and a limited series called “Thai Cave Rescue” is coming to Netflix in September. .
Nothing makes Howard’s take any more special than these docs, in large part because he cannot decide who or what his film is about.
First, there’s the title: “Thirteen Lives.” Those two words sandwiched together would imply that we learn something — anything! — about the 13 fun-loving young soccer players who decide to venture into a cave to celebrate their pal’s birthday only to get stuck due to heavy rains during monsoon season. But we don’t. Not a single detail is uttered about them except some of their names.
How bonkers it is to witness a film about saving a dozen cute kids (in their brief moments on-screen, the actors are swell) that does not take advantage of the primordial drama of young people in peril.
We think we finally have some main characters to guide us through the murk when John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) are called in from England to assist the out-of-their-league Thai Navy SEALs. The pair are volunteer cave divers — one is a retired firefighter and the other works in IT — who are the best in the business.
Yet all the movie tells us about them beyond the vaguest of dossiers is that they are shy and humble, and John has a young son back home whom the lost boys remind him of.
Farrell and Mortensen are eventually joined by Joel Edgerton as an aquatic doctor. All are perfectly adequate. Bland even. The material is simply too shallow to make anybody memorable.
The fleeting adult Thai characters are painted in even broader strokes: a governor who’s about to leave his job, the concerned mother of a missing boy, a Bangkok man who realizes aboveground streams are exacerbating the problem and a few other divers.
Howard’s film is at its best during the dangerous swims, as we watch the skilled rescuers problem-solve and come up with innovative solutions to the unimaginable. But once we see them make the trip a handful of times, the overlong film settles into a much too comfortable groove.
“Thirteen Lives” is not an embarrassment on the level of some of Howard’s recent paychecks, such as “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Inferno.” At the screening I was at, I overheard a man saying that the director did well by capturing the situation’s claustrophobia. Considering it’s a story about scuba diving in a subterranean cave, one would hope so!
And even though it’s based on a major, recent international news story, there are compelling scenes where we briefly forget about the well-known outcome of the saga and believe that some underwater maneuver might go wrong or, in some sad instances, go right. Not as easy as it looks.
It’s during those tense, taut, well-paced sequences when we miss peak-Howard, who directed “Apollo 13” and “A Beautiful Mind” — not “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”