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'Thirteen Lives' is Ron Howard's take on a dramatic cave rescue in Thailand


In his latest movie, filmmaker Ron Howard takes us inside an underwater cave in northern Thailand.


COLIN FARRELL: (As John Volanthen) We're on the list of rescue divers.

VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Rick Stanton) It's just a tourist cave.

FARRELL: (As John Volanthen) It looks easy, but when it's flooded, it's impossible.


KHALID: The movie is the Hollywood take on the dramatic rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in deep, dark tunnels during heavy rains in Thailand four years ago. It's called "Thirteen Lives." And we're joined now by LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan to talk about it. Good to have you with us.

KENNETH TURAN: Good to be here.

KHALID: So, Kenny, this is based on a true story. I will say, I remember the headlines, but I don't necessarily remember all these details.

TURAN: Yes. No, I felt the same way when the film first showed up on the radar. And this really goes through it. I mean, Ron Howard has taken kind of a journalistic approach here. He takes you through the entire story from beginning to end. And, you know, the specifics are so kind of astonishing that you really want to know what happens next.

KHALID: You know, what was it like to see this on the big screen? I mean, there's got to be scenes inside that cave that I imagine are kind of claustrophobic-feeling.

TURAN: Oh, claustrophobic is the key word. I mean, these are not the wide-open spaces by any means. And they've done a great job - you know, kind of movie magic technicians - in recreating the cave, in using things like that that make you really feel that you're there.

KHALID: So let's talk about some of the actors. Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell play these heroes - they're volunteers, diving hobbyists - who come to the aid of these boys trapped in the cave. I mean, how does their performance stack up?

TURAN: Well, you know, these guys are very unassuming guys - the real guys. And for these kind of roles, you need low-key charisma. You know, they're quiet. They're withdrawn. But, you know, because they've got the movie-star charisma, you feel that you want to pay attention to them.

KHALID: So the real story was not just about the heroic efforts of foreigners but also the scary reality of these dozen young Thai kids who were trapped inside the cave. And I'm curious, you know, does the movie portray those kids as multidimensional characters? What's their role in all of this?

TURAN: Well, you know, that's a good question because they do not spend a lot of time with the kids. The rights issues and who could talk to who with these films got very complicated. And it turns out there is a Netflix series about to open that really looks at the kids more closely.


TURAN: We spend most of our time outside the cave. Thai Navy SEALs that are first on the scene and are really helpful - there's a great emphasis placed on the fact that this is a really enormous nationwide effort to really make this rescue happen.

KHALID: In all of this filming - my understanding is - was done essentially during the height of the COVID pandemic. And I'm curious how that impacted the filming.

TURAN: Well, you know, I just recently found out that it impacted the filming quite a bit. The dramatic scenes, the scenes that take place outside the cave - those were all shot in Australia because of COVID restrictions. And there were scenes with the Thai participants that were shot in Thailand. And Ron Howard directed those over Zoom.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

TURAN: He was like a remote director. You know, Ron Howard...

KHALID: Just like all of us - over Zoom.

TURAN: Yes. Yes. Even Hollywood doesn't escape Zoom. But, you know, Ron Howard's been directing, I think, for 40 years. You know, not anyone could direct a film well from a distance, but Ron Howard managed to do it, and you couldn't tell that it was shot in this unusual way watching the film.

KHALID: The film "Thirteen Lives" comes out today.

Kenny, thanks as always.

TURAN: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

KHALID: Kenneth Turan reviews movies here on MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KLINE'S "IV. TARANTELLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Kenneth Turan is the film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition, as well as the director of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. He has been a staff writer for the Washington Post and TV Guide, and served as the Times' book review editor.
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