Director – Tom Waller – 2022 – Thailand – US Cert. PG-13 – 99m
A Thai-based dramatisation of the 2018 Thailand boys’ football team cave rescue, with some of the rescuers playing themselves – on Blu-ray (US only) Tuesday, September 13th
In 2018, the world held its breath when the 12 boys of a football team and their 24-year-old coach became trapped in a cave when rain fell unexpectedly and water levels within the cave system started to rise. Incredibly, the ensuing rescue attempt involving divers from the US, UK, Ireland and Canada got all 13 out alive. According to this film, sadly, there was one fatality among the Thai Navy SEAL divers involved in the rescue.
Quick off the mark, Thailand-based producer-director Waller made the story into a feature film The Cave (2019), aimed at the Thai market. With Netflix having already secured the rights to the boys’ stories – a miniseries Thai Cave Rescue (2022) is coming to Netflix US in September 2022 – Waller and his co-writers had to find an alternative route to telling the story. A meeting with Irish diver Jim Warny, who was involved in the rescue operation, resulted in the decision to base the narrative not around the thirteen people trapped underground but the men and women who attempted to get them out (mostly men, although there are one or two women featured among the paramedics not to mention an assistant to the local Governor). Thai Navy SEAL divers are featured as a group of secondary characters.
Warny, who also appears in the National Geographic documentary on the same story The Rescue (Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2021) currently to be found on Disney+, here plays himself as do a number of fellow divers and others involved in the operation, mixed in amongst the actors in the cast. This is something of a two-edged sword. What you don’t get is lots of self-searching and character development which absence seems to have been a stumbling block for some reviewers. Waller has taken a very different approach to the longer to make, Hollywood movie Thirteen Lives (Ron Howard, 2022) which uses actors exclusively.
Waller’s intent seems to lie elsewhere: in putting the rescue on the screen and showing the difficulties faced, and the obstacles surmounted by those who took part. He takes the approach of the procedural as a man with a whiteboard draws a map of the caves in felt pen and explains the base camp is Chamber Three while the boys and coach are trapped in Chamber Nine. Whatever he loses in actors’ charisma or presence is made up for by watching people who took part in the rescue and know what they’re doing: no actors having to pretend they know how to dive here. That gives the film a verisimilitude; it’s less of a dramatisation than a recreation of events before the camera, and that perhaps makes it more believable than it would be with confident actors who, as their craft requires, are faking it. For this viewer, at least, that approach works here.
Similarly with Wade Muller’s cinematography, in which it seems like you can barely see more than a foot or so in front of your face in the water. Some viewers might wish for a slightly less naturalistic approach which allows the audience to see more, but again this approach works and may well provide a reasonably accurate picture of how that situation looked to the divers involved. When you’re under the water with the divers, the visibility is frequently poor while the tunnels connecting the caves are confined – and the caves themselves are not that big. This gives rise to an overall feeling of claustrophobia which definitely adds something to the movie.
By making his movie so soon after the real event, Waller managed to get it shot before the onset of the global pandemic which would pose additional challenges for later productions.
Cave Rescue is not exactly The Cave. While roughly speaking comprising the same material, with a few elements removed, it’s been subtly reshaped for the US market. That said, it retains its Thai flavour so that, for instance, a surviving sequence explains Thai mythology about the Princess Nang Non, who after being forbidden to see her true love committed suicide and her outflowing blood became the waters of the caves, as well as featuring a ceremony of dedication to her by locals wishing to ensure the safe deliverance of the boys and their coach.
Onscreen titles constantly remind you which of the caves in the system you‘re in. The cave sequences were shot in various cave systems in Thailand, some of them in the Tham Luang system where the real life events occurred, as well as a set built over a swimming pool.
A number of supplementary incidents make it into the narrative. A manufacturer of more efficient water pumps than the inadequate ones initially used to pump water out of the flooded caves finds himself unable to take his state of the art pumps into the rescue area because he doesn’t have an access pass.
In order to bring the boys out, they must be sedated with Ketamine (basically, horse tranquilizer) to prevent panicking and overpowering their rescuers, which means that they must be fitted with foolproof breathing apparatus so as to survive being pulled unconscious through underwater passages. When inferior designed and therefore inadequate masks turn up, the necessary, higher quality ones have to be sourced from a diving shop in Cardiff, Wales and are given a high speed, police car journey to get them to London airport and on board a plane to Thailand as fast as possible.
Much is made too of Warny’s being able to travel from Ireland to Thailand at two hours notice and talking over the internet to his supportive and encouraging fiancée Asia Mania, playing herself.
Something that comes through loud and clear is the general goodwill of the Thai people in desiring the safe return of the trapped boys.
The pumping of water from the cave threatens to destroy farmers’ produce in the flooded fields, but they refuse compensation offered by the government on the ground that the money should be going to help the rescue attempt. If that really happened, it’s almost unthinkable in the West where farmers would probably be up in arms about their threatened livelihood.
In the end, it’s a film which sits somewhere between a documentary and a drama, with the emphasis very definitely on procedure. That’s fascinating stuff – we want to know how the boys got trapped, what was necessary to get them out and what were the obstacles (and cock-ups) along the way. That makes it well worth a look, and it’s to be hoped it gets some sort of UK release in cinemas or at least online at some point.
Cave Rescue is on Blu-ray (US only) Tuesday, September 13th.
Friday, August 5th (US only) – cinemas, on demand and on digital.
Tuesday, September 13th – (US only) Blu-ray release.