In mid-2018 a team of young soccer players and their 25-year-old assistant coach became famously trapped inside the Tham Luong cave in northern Thailand after torrential rains blocked their exit and complicated their rescue. The event, which captured the world’s attention, ultimately arrived at a more or less happy ending, with players and the coach rescued, but tragedy struck along the way – one rescue diver died mid-operation and another months later from an infection.
It almost goes without saying that any dramatist recreating these events should begin by asking themselves what kind of narrative they wish to tell. Is this, for example, a story about surviving against the odds? Is it about disparate people coming together for a greater good? Is it about how sometimes it takes a tragedy to recognise true human potential and bring out the best in people?
There are only very vague hints of any of the above in writer-director Tom Waller’s feature film The Cave, a procedural-like and documentary-style overview of the event that’s oddly muted emotionally (given how inspiring this tale potentially is) and largely devoid of intellectual and humanistic perspective. Waller shows many aspects of the rescue process, but develops not a single interesting character to guide us through the experience.
So, what was the point? Why make it at all? The subject line of the email that landed in my inbox announcing its release reads “The world’s first film about the Thai soccer team rescue,” which seems to reflect the driving impetus. Not to tell a good story, or a certain kind of story, but to tell the first dramatised story; to make a Tham Luong cave movie before anybody else. Other productions coming down the pipeline include a Netflix miniseries and a Ron Howard biopic being produced on the Gold Coast.
Where The Cave succeeds is illustrating the many moving parts involved in a rescue mission of this magnitude. There are military personnel who examine maps and assess the odds of survival, for instance, and community members offering a helping hand – from farmers donating produce to a water pump manufacturer delivering crucial equipment. There are also, importantly, the divers who rescued the team from the cave, four of whom are played by the actual divers themselves: Jim Warny (from Ireland), Erik Brown (Canada), Mikko Paasi (Finland) and Tan Xiaolong (China).
Don’t expect any portrait of the soccer team and the coach: despite their centrality to this story they are virtually nonexistent, the director only briefly cutting to them from time to time. When we learn they’ve been stuck in the cave for seven days it feels as if barely any time has elapsed at all, partly because we’ve spent so little with them (nor do we feel the immediacy and sense of stakes the material demands).
At this point Waller begins periodically divulging information via piece-to-camera addresses from TV journalists, the site outside the cave taking on a carnivalesque atmosphere – like in Billy Wilder’s great 1951 film, Ace in the Hole. While a work of fiction, Wilder’s acerbic commentary on media sensation has obvious similarities, revolving around the plight of a man who gets trapped inside an abandoned silver mine, his precarious situation worsened by a tenacious reporter (Kirk Douglas) who exploits the story for his own career prospects.
I’m not suggesting Waller’s film should be cynical, like Wilder’s, or that any journalist had untoward motives in covering the cave rescue. But there’s certainly something to be said about how the media frames unfolding narratives, how these narratives change with time, how and why certain stories take hold in the public consciousness, and the various political elements involved in telling them, with regards to issues such as representation and access.
The Thai government, for example, attempted to control or at least steer this narrative, selling exclusive access to Netflix and a US production company. For others, it blocked access to the subjects and their families, limiting the ability for people such as Waller to undertake research, which is perhaps why his film is so light when it comes to detailing the actual people stuck in the cave (though he would hardly have been the first director to have taken some artistic licence if he chose to portray them).
To his credit, Waller doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence or whip up a cheesy stupor. He doesn’t present a narrative with convenient fold lines, and entrusts the audience to remember individual people without underlining their relevance – or even necessarily telling us their names. Warny becomes a key figure but there is no clear protagonist in this story, no single way “in”. Rather than being interestingly unconventional, the film comes across as unintentionally scrambled. There are so many people but so few characters. Such a big story, with so little feeling.
• The Cave is out now in cinemas in Australia and New Zealand (where restrictions allow)