The Great Thai Cave Escape? Please, Hollywood, don't do this to us | Catherine Shoard

When real life is so utterly inspirational, a movie version can only be underwhelming

With a speed that might have been deemed unseemly had the outcome been different, 14 hours after the last child was hauled to safety, a movie version of the Thai caves rescue was announced. No stars, director or writer are yet attached. No title has been floated. But given that the production company is Pure Flix – the outfit previously responsible for po-faced faith film franchise God’s Not Dead – we can probably safely assume it won’t be Hooyah!

Solemn strings will feature. Treacle-filters too. And if Elon Musk and his special submarine put in an appearance, it will be sans scepticism.

One thing the movie won’t be, however, is directly evangelical. “It’s not necessary to make this a Christian film,” confirmed the producer, perhaps conscious that these particular caves are shrines to Buddha. “Just an inspirational one.”

In fact, it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary to make this film at all. Inspiration enough has already been gleaned from the real-life events of the past week in Thailand. Only the thickest-skinned person would fail to have been impressed by the courage of the divers, or to have broken out in a cold sweat at the thought of the dark and the rising tide, the terror of the boys, the guilt of the coach, the worry of their parents. Imagination is a much more effective fear machine than mid-budget fictionalisation.

Cave graphic.

It’s easy to see the logic, though. If a situation seems so incredible as to be ripped from the notepad of an especially frantic Hollywood hack, it probably ought to be on the big screen, post-haste. Yet such rushed ventures rarely succeed. The movie The 33 made a meh out of the amazing story of the Chilean miners, trapped for more than two months. Neither of the Boston marathon bombing movies, Patriots Day and Stronger, could capture the urgent horror and heroism of such recent events.

The exception is United 93, Paul Greengrass’s painstaking recreation of the hijacked 9/11 flight that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania rather than, in all likelihood, the White House, thanks to its passengers. It worked because Greengrass’s intention was as much journalistic as cinematic – the script was assembled from black box recordings, interviews and mobile phone calls from the sky, veracity dictating every frame.

In the 17 years since 2001, much has changed. When disaster strikes, phone footage generally gives us immediate, first-person insight – the Thai cave drama has been unusual for its absence. And such schooling now means our tolerance for the inauthentic is lower. We call out bullshit faster.

Meanwhile, this constant exposure to actual upset may have altered our appetite for make-believe. Where once The Handmaid’s Tale felt pleasingly on-the-button, now viewers opt not to spend their leisure time learning further brutal truths about female subjugation. The experience of living through a period in history that can feel like a particularly jittery melodrama is likely to mean we require less excitement from our art. Last weekend was the worst at the UK box office in years, audiences gripped instead by Thailand, Brexit, the Salisbury murder, the World Cup – and the weather. One chain, Picturehouse, even scrapped normal screenings last Saturday afternoon and aired the England v Sweden match for free instead, hoping to recoup some lost revenue from food and drink sales. This weekend, the Wimbledon finals and the visit of Donald Trump join the line-up of living, breathing attractions.

Cinema’s attempt to tempt us from the real-life action comes courtesy of Skyscraper, in which former wrestler The Rock does battle with a high place – a 240-storey building, filled with flames, baddies, terrorists, his wife and his children. On the plus side, it’s reassuringly unrealistic – disaster movies ideally now need to be based on a long-past tragedy or be self-evidently bananas. The big set-piece has The Rock, already missing a leg, scaling the world’s most enormous crane, then leaping from it through red-hot, plate-glass windows.

But on the minus side, it can’t help but feel hollow, even unambitious, next to the headlines. “My family is the only thing that matters to me,” says The Rock as he flings himself down a lift shaft. The divers in Thailand weren’t risking – and in one case, losing – their lives because they were related to the boys. The passengers on United 93 worked together in anonymous altruism. Every hour, social media feeds us everyday stories of people helping out strangers – good samaritans apparently unmotivated either by the promise of a place in heaven or the continuation of their own bloodline.

Small wonder the movies seem insignificant. But simply repeating real life, in an almighty hurry, is unlikely to be the way to make them relevant again.

• Catherine Shoard is the Guardian’s film editor


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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