Water, geologists tell us, is how many caves came to be.
Take the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand. Water slowly carved the natural tunnel inch by inch, mile by mile. Mineral-rich water gathered on its ceiling, forming stalactites; that same water dripped to the floor, building stalagmites. Even now, the water is still at work there—building up, tearing down.
And water cares not with what, or who, might be in its way.
In late June of 2018, a dozen young soccer players and the team’s assistant coach wanted to kill some time between soccer practice and a birthday party. The Tham Luang cave, just a short bike ride away, seemed perfect. And while the cave was known to flood—it was always closed for months during Thailand’s July-to-November monsoon season—the skies were clear and blue. Besides, the monsoons were still at least a week away.
But water cares not.
Soon after the boys entered the caverns, the skies opened up, drenching the jungles and soaking the fields. Water found hundreds of holes along the surface of Tham Luang, draining into the caves as if through a sieve. Dry walkways turned into rivers, rock rooms turned into lakes. And still the water rose—pressing to the ceiling, squeezing into crevice and cranny. Rising. Rising.
Hours later, worried parents rushed to the cave. Thirteen bicycles were lined up by the cave entrance.
The days to come found the land around the cave greatly changed. It, too, was flooded, but with people. Parents. Volunteers. Officials. Navy SEALs. All are desperate to get to the boys, be they alive or dead.
But only a handful of people have the skill to get to them, through the cave’s bewildering tunnels and swirling currents.
British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton have years of cave-diving experience and notched dozens of rescue missions. They’ve dealt with darkness, pushed through currents, squeezed through the tiniest of cracks in many a flooded cave. If anyone can get to the boys, they can.
But as John and Richard well know, reaching the boys and saving them are very different things.
And water cares not if they do.
Thirteen Lives is based on a true rescue operation that captured the world’s attention in 2018. And this story has plenty of heroes to go around.
The film focuses especially on John and Richard. While they know what they’re doing, these two divers also know how dangerous it is: Every time they dive, they’re risking their lives. They’re joined by plenty of other divers as well—some hailing from inside Thailand. While these would-be rescuers do subtly squabble for turf at times, all are primarily concerned with the welfare of the boys inside the cave. And as time goes on, everyone settles into a deeply cooperative and collaborative mindset.
All the divers’ heroism would’ve been nullified, of course, if the cave’s waters kept rising. They didn’t, and that’s because a volunteer water engineer rallied countless farmers and villagers from around the region to divert rainwater from the myriad of holes draining into the caves. It was a massive undertaking, and sacrificial in its own right: When farmers are told that their fields will be flooded and their crops will be ruined, they still give their assent. “For the boys,” one says.
Even politicians get into the act. The local governor—who had already been sacked before the crisis and was in his last week at his post—is ordered to stay put. It’s suspected the government is looking for a scapegoat should things go wrong. But the governor accepts the responsibility. And when divers approach him with an unorthodox and dangerous plan to rescue the children, he doubles down. If the plan goes awry, he tells the divers that he’ll accept the blame. “If we fail, the failure is mine alone,” he says.
And then, of course, we’d be remiss to leave this section without talking about the boys and their coach. The coach manages to keep a dozen hungry, tired, scared kids and teens focused and calm throughout the ordeal, and the boys themselves show amazing fortitude and courage.
We see plenty of faith at work in Thirteen Lives, but it’s not Christian faith.
Buddhism sits at the top of Thailand’s religions, and we see that especially in the mother of one trapped boy. She attends a Buddhist ceremony and asks a Buddhist cleric—apparently a fairly prominent one—to bless a handful of bracelets. She gives John and Richard each a blessed bracelet. And while Richard’s inclined to chuck the thing, telling John that he’s not “superstitious,” John tells him to put it on: The mother, after all, is watching them. (He does and, after the mission, Richard later sees the bracelet and smiles.) The team’s coach leads his team through meditation sessions to help them stave off hunger. (While the film itself doesn’t go into the coach’s faith, his real-world counterpart was a former Buddhist monk.)
But religion, perhaps especially Eastern streams of religion, can be surprisingly malleable, bringing in other quasi-deities that aren’t exactly orthodox.
Tham Luang itself is a good example of that. The name of the cave (“Tham Luang Nang Non”) means “Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady,” and the mountain range the cave lies under does indeed look like a reclining woman (with a little imagination). The movie doesn’t go into who the “sleeping lady” was, but some legends detail her tragic story.
While that folktale isn’t exactly religious, a shrine—complete with a statue of the legendary lady—graces the entrance, and the boys and the coach all press their hands together and bow a bit to the figure as they head into the cave. Throughout the film, director Ron Howard returns to capture the statue’s enigmatic face at critical moments (when the rains unexpectedly start or stop, for instance), heightening the sense that the “sleeping lady” is a player in this critical drama.
A family member prays to “the spirit of the forest,” asking for forgiveness if the boys had somehow offended it in any way. People regularly greet each other with hands pressed together, as if in prayer.
The divers are doing very dangerous work. We see just how dangerous when a Thailand former Navy SEAL dies in the cave. He dies of asphyxiation, so while the fatality isn’t bloody, it is disturbing.
Another diver is helped out of the cave after being injured. (We see his hand covered in blood.) A man needing to be rescued from the flooded cave panics on the way out—nearly killing both himself and the diver trying to help him.
And obviously, the threat of death is ever-present. Richard was in fact hoping that, when they reached the boys, they’d be dead: Better that than for them to slowly die as the world watched, unable to save them. Rescue, at the time, seemed impossible. And even as a plan formed, everyone involved expected that some—perhaps most—of the boys would die during the attempt.
At least two uses of the f-word and about three of the s-word. We also hear “h—,” “p-ss” and the British profanity “bloody” on occasion. Jesus’ name is misused twice.
We hear people joke about heading to a bar after the rescue.
Doctors and divers give people injections.
[Spoiler Warning] All 13 lives are saved in Thirteen Lives—but it requires an unprecedented, and controversial, step.
With little hope of training the boys to do complex cave diving (some kids can’t even swim), Richard and John bring in Richard Harris, an anesthesiologist—asking him if he’d be willing to render the boys unconscious so they can be just carried out like “packages.” Harris balks at first, saying it’s “immoral and unethical,” and likely a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. But with no other feasible options, he eventually agrees. The governor also approves the plan, but he insists that no one be told about the procedure—not even the boys’ worried parents.
The plan works, of course. But for some readers, hiding this truth might be the same as a lie—and a pretty important one at that.
As mentioned, we see just a touch of territoriality as the rescue operation gets underway—but that aspect of the story just underlines the growing collaboration between so many.
We meet plenty of heroes in Thirteen Lives. The real Tham Luang cave rescue featured exponentially more.
About 10,000 people from 17 countries were involved in the real-world rescue operations—most of them unpaid volunteers. For 18 days, they worked to save this youth soccer team as the world watched. And that, alone, is inspiring. We live in an age where divides are so great that we can’t agree on much of anything, and where sometimes even the most basic of issues crumble into political squabbles. To see thousands rally around one common cause—well, that’s the stuff of movies, right? That doesn’t happen in real life anymore.
And yet in this case, it did.
The core story was so inspirational that the rights to it were originally purchased by the Christian studio Pure Flix in 2018. “The bravery and heroism I’ve witnessed is incredibly inspiring,” Pure Flix CEO Michael Scott told The Hollywood Reporter at the time, “so, yes, this will be a movie for us.”
Those rights eventually moved to United Artists Releasing and Amazon Studios. And that leaves us with a question of what might have been.
Had Thirteen Lives come to theaters as a Pure Flix production, we’d certainly be spared the language issues we deal with here. The film’s religious and spiritual elements might’ve been a bit more restrained. It’d be nice if this inspirational story had been made for, truly, all audiences. But its secular makers weren’t so inclined. So, as it is, many parents will balk at taking their kids.
On the flip side, Pure Flix might not have been able to snag two-time Oscar winning director Ron Howard to helm the film. It’s doubtful they would’ve had the money to sign up its powerhouse cast, which includes Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton. And while it’s impossible to know what Pure Flix might’ve done with the story, there’s no question the story we are given is both powerful and inspirational.
Thirteen Lives is not sappy. It’s not melodramatic. It doesn’t need to be. Howard wisely lets the story speak for itself. In its own way, it reminds us of the fragility and sacred beauty of life itself—and insists that its value cannot be found on a spreadsheet.
The water cared not what happened to these kids. But we did. And as we watch this film, we do.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.