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Irish-Thai filmmaker Tom Waller tells the true story of the ordeal faced by a trapped Thai soccer team in his new film Cave Rescue.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

  • Cave Rescue
  • Directed by Tom Waller
  • Written by Tom Waller, Katrina Grose and Don Linder
  • Starring Ekawat Niratvorapanya, Jumpa Saenprom and Jim Warny
  • Classification N/A; 104 minutes

Rating:

1.5 out of 4 stars

Director Tom Waller’s new drama Cave Rescue proves that, just like in any real-deal rescue mission, the first man in is not necessarily the best man.

After the world became transfixed by the heartbreaking plight and eventual liberation of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from the flooded Tham Luong caves in the summer of 2018, there was an immediate race between local and Hollywood producers to push out a piece of feel-good entertainment. The tale, after all, was a ridiculously inspiring one of hope and perseverance, perfect for a thrilling big-budget docudrama or binge-worthy miniseries.

But audiences can only handle so many competing visions of the same real-life story, and speed isn’t the defining element of success. There is a reason why we all remember the 1993 film Alive and not the 1976 film Survive!, even though both dramatized the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571.

So while the Irish-Thai filmmaker Waller sprinted out of the gate early, with his production commencing principal photography just three months after the real-life saga ended, the result is something that will likely be relegated to the dustiest margins of history, cinematic and otherwise.

Partly, this is due to the Thai government immediately taking control of the rights to the boys’ stories, and then making a deal with the U.S.-based Ivanhoe Pictures, which is now developing a series for Netflix. With a crucial piece of the story absent from Waller’s film – we never get to know any of the children – we’re left to focus on the government officials, media and rescue divers pulled into the cave’s orbit for a few frantic weeks.

Canadian Erik Brown is one of several divers who play themselves in the film.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

In a stronger, better equipped filmmaker’s hands, this material could have been enough to craft a gripping tick-tock thriller. But a resource-strapped Waller instead chose, at every opportunity, the most safe and prosaic storytelling routes, resulting in a film that feels as rushed and inconsiderate as the production’s speedy timeline suggests.

There were many poor choices made on the way to filming Cave Rescue (which is simply titled The Cave in territories outside Canada), but none so ill-considered as the decision to cast several of the real-life rescuers as themselves. Divers Jim Warny (Belgium), Erik Brown (Canada), Mikko Paasi (Finland) and Tan Xiaolong (China) play themselves, and as heroic as these men are, there is a reason they pursued careers in emergency response instead of acting. What’s worse is that Waller is content to let his amateur cast flail about, just as he’s fine with letting his professional performers deliver lines like, “Frankly, sir, we’re running out of time” and “This mission is unprecedented!”

Thai pop star Ekawat Niratvorapanya gets a bit more to do, and received either better direction or has more instinctive on-screen chops, as the soccer coach Ekapol Chanthawong. But mostly, this is amateur hour through and through.

Cave Rescue can forever claim to be the first movie made about an unforgettable ordeal. But that’s all anyone will remember it for.

Cave Rescue is available April 3 on demand

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