On June 23, 2018, 12 boys aged 11 to 16 and the assistant coach of their soccer team became trapped by rising waters while exploring the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. For the next 18 days, people all over the world tuned in to watch more than 10,000 volunteers from all around the globe work to save them.
Since that time, there have been numerous explorations of the event, including the recent award-winning documentary, The Rescue.
So, when Hollywood decided to produce a movie based on the incident, they were faced with one seemingly impossible task: How do you make a suspenseful, emotionally gripping motion picture out of a story when almost everyone in the world already knows the end?
The answer is simple: Give it to the man who’s done it before.
In 1995, filmmaker Ron Howard directed Apollo 13, a retelling of the famous NASA moonshot that nearly ended in the death of the three astronauts on board. Though the mission’s eventual happy outcome was cemented in history, so well-made was the movie that audiences still sat clutching their seats in worry over what was going to happen next onscreen.
With Thirteen Lives, Howard attempts to pull off the same magic trick and, for the most part, he succeeds.
The film wastes little time in setting up the stakes involved. Within a few short minutes of the movie’s beginning the tsunami has arrived, the children are stranded, and the efforts have begun to reach them before they starve, drown, or simply run out of oxygen. As the local Navy SEALs struggle to find a way to reach the team, help begins to arrive from all nations, most notably in the form of four veteran rescue divers from the British armed services: Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen); John Volanthen (Colin Farrell); Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgarton); and Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman). It’s these men who will concoct an innovative, never-before-tried plan that could save everyone. Or kill them. There’s no way to know beforehand.
This would be enough story for most films, but Thirteen Lives wisely doesn’t focus solely on the heroics of the four Englishmen. It also spends a good deal of time with the locals of the Chiang Rai Province and how they cope with the situation. This provides a spiritual center to the movie as the community’s response is one primarily of self-sacrifice and faith.
In order to provide the rescue effort a few more precious hours, the nearby farmers allow the rainwaters pouring into the cave to be diverted to their fields, thereby sacrificing their crops for the coming year. It’s a selfless act driven by their religious beliefs, as are the many prayers and ceremonies the town comes together to perform. This reliance on faith extends to those trapped in the cave, as the main way they handle their predicament is through prayer and meditation.
In an interview with The Christian Post, the director noted that the spirituality which provided the soccer team and their parents peace throughout the ordeal was “an important element that I didn’t know very much about, but I felt it was emotional and very, very beautiful and cinematic, and completely true.”
Howard’s unfamiliarity with the small town’s religion will probably be shared by many viewers, as it is an animistic amalgam of Buddhism, devotion to ancestors, and nature worship. Their prayers are not to a loving, personal God, but to the detached spirits of the mountain and forest, pleading that they forgive any unwitting insult that may have occurred that would cause the spirits to punish the children in such a manner.
However, though the focus of the prayers is different, the overarching need to turn to the divine for aid and comfort in such situations is all too familiar. It’s how we get through, even when the outcome doesn’t look good.
As Adul “Adun” Samon, the only Christian among the group of boys in the cave, would say in a later interview with Compassion International, “We could not do anything to help. The only thing that I could do was to pray. I prayed ‘Lord, I’m only a boy. You are almighty God, You are holy, and You are powerful. Right now, I can’t do anything. May You protect us, come to help us all 13.’”
Adul thankfully got the answer to his prayers that he wanted. As for those in horrible situations still waiting on their own answers, Adul says, “I would say to be patient and confident in God. Pray and wait on God with hope.”
Coming from someone who sat slowly dying in a cave for 18 days waiting on a response from God, that advice carries some authority.
Thirteen Lives is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, and while it is not quite the masterpiece that Apollo 13 is, it’s proof once again that Ron Howard can take an overly familiar story and turn it into a simultaneously suspenseful and uplifting experience well worth the time you spend with it.