The 33 (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for a disaster sequence and some language
Running Time: 127 min.
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Lou Diamond Phillips, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne, Cote de Pablo, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nunez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Trevino, James Brolin, Adriana Barraza, Bob Gunton
Director: Patricia Riggen
Screenplay: Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, Michael Thomas (based on the book, "Deep Down Dark", by Hector Tobar)
Review published November 18, 2015
The 33 is based on the highly publicized true story of thirty-three Chilean miners who, for over two months in 2010, were trapped over 2,000 feet below the Atacama Desert when there was a major collapse in their labyrinthine, century-old cavern of copper and gold, the San Jose Mine. Despite overwhelming odds, all of the miners make it to the place called, "The Refuge", where food, medicine, and an intercom to the surface are supposed to exist. However, their company has done a poor job, cutting corners on safety measures, leaving them with few rations and no functioning communications equipment. With perpetual 100-degree temperatures, their lack of adequate air, water, and sustenance begins to weigh heavier on the men than the mountainous boulder that's trapping them down. There's no way back to the sole entrance, and no way to communicate to the outside world if they're even alive. All they can do is wait and hope that the people who are outside decide to mount a rescue, and that they never give up faith.
In this somewhat loose recounting of the events, Antonio Banderas (Automata, The Expendables 3) is the closest person to a lead performer in this ensemble piece, playing Mario Sepulveda, who ends up becoming the de facto leader among the men in order to have someone responsible enough to see them through before their three-day ration of emergency food runs out. The men squabble, despair, hallucinate, always hoping for a miracle that seems like it's never going to come. Meanwhile, the Chilean government sees an opportunity to do good, even for themselves in terms of public relations, by trying to help, sending their Minister of Mining (Santoro, Focus) out to do whatever he can to make it happen, even though he is told repeatedly that it can't be done. Egging on the attempts to drill are the families and friends of the miners entombed beneath, setting up Camp Hope, their new home away from home to make sure that their loved ones come out alive.
Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress, Under the Same Moon) directs this glossy Hollywood re-enactment, which often feels like a well-produced movie made for television. The perspective of the movie shifts between the miners down below, the anguished families waiting for them above, and the rescue team who are working diligently to try to get the men out before it's too late. Just the story of the miners would have been interesting enough, but crying women sells tickets by upping the pathos (and the marketability), so they get plenty of screen time. The engineering involved in the rescue effort is vastly simplified so that just about anyone can understand it, though that does take on absurd levels. A computer simulation of the mine comes complete with a graphic of the giant boulder that one of the characters claims is twice the size of the Empire State Building, which he niftily shows further by putting a graphic on the computer screen of two Empire State Buildings side by side to contrast to the massive rock.
There obviously were many compromises involved in the making of The 33 to make it a commercially viable film. The most obvious is that nearly the entire film is an English-language production, which will broaden its international appeal to markets where subtitles films are not as popular, and to have everyone speak that English with a pronounced Chilean accent. Then there are the controversial casting decisions of mostly non-Chilean actors in primary roles, again to broaden the appeal to the major world markets. Many of performers are not even Latino, such as popular French actress Juliette Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria), replacing the originally cast Jennifer Lopez, as the feisty sister of one of the miners, Filipino actor Lou Diamond Phillips (Hollywood Homicide) as shift foreman Luis 'Don Lucho' Uzura, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne (Vampire Academy) as the chief engineer in charge of drilling, and Bob Gunton (Runner Runner) as Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera. Even casting Spanish actor Antonio Banderas and Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro, playing Chile's Minister of Mining, further remove the feeling of authenticity, and many of the prominent miners are played by Spanish, Mexican, and Cuban, with "NCIS" star Cote de Pablo being one of the rare actors actually born in Chile (though, even then, she's lived and worked as an actress and singer in the United States since childhood). When James Brolin (A Guy Thing) shows up, we only know his character is American because of the big American flag patch he wears on his sleeve. The performances range from adequate to quite good (Banderas and Phillips stand out), but it definitely does little to feel like an authentic true story with a multinational cast of English-speakers.
There are a few missteps in story-telling here and there, with the most obvious being a misguided dream sequence in which the starving miners all begin to concurrently hallucinate about women in their lives showing up to provide them with the best meal they've ever had, served up on silver platters. Though the film is called The 33, it could have more accurately been called The 3 or 4, as most of the dialogue and character development goes to less than a handful of the miners in the group, who seemingly are doing all of the work. As for the rest, they either have no traits, or maybe just one that made the news, such as the miner who had a wife and a mistress waiting for him, the one that was close to retirement, the one who worked as an Elvis impersonator, and the alcoholic suffering from the effects of a forced detox. Boxes are checked off from the news stories for those waiting for them, but none really add to the overall story's themes, whatever those may be.
I suppose if you want to know what it must have felt like to be down in a mine thousands of feet deep, The 33 will do an adequate job giving you a perspective on how it might have looked and felt, even though it's impossible to capture 69 entire days of claustrophobia, uncertainty, despair, lack of sunlight, or quality oxygen in a two-hour film. What the movie lacks, however, is a feeling of inspiration that we can draw from the experience of the miners; they survived long enough to be rescued in difficult conditions, but it's more of a feel-good story than one that is enriched with important themes that reveal the nature of human experience. Without aspiration to be something enlightening, there's not much inspiration we can draw from the experience. We do get lots of perspiration, however, as the film does enjoy showing the sweltering, stifling work conditions that force hunky, fit actors to walk around shirtless and glistening with sweat.
The film starts with the factoid that over 12,000 people die in mining accidents every year, and we proceed to see thirty-three men try not to become part of that statistic, there mostly because they're working for a corporation that placed far more emphasis on their own profit than in the safety of their workers, whom they seem reluctant to even try to help once calamity strikes. The company gets away without even having to pay restitution to the miners once the ordeal is over, but the film is such a soft-sell production, that even the meaty angle of the rampant, wide-scale problem of mining companies exploiting cheap labor and never providing for their well-being is off the table. Perhaps it's ironic that the film shows thirty-three men who could have needlessly died due to improper precautions should play everything so safe so as not to upset anyone, even greedy businesses willing to cut plenty of corners, then abandon them because they don't want to spend the money. That the miners received no compensation from the company for their ordeal is bad enough, but for all of the future miners who will likely die in the future because few people, including those who made The 33, are willing to take a stand for industry reform is the bitterest aftertaste of this saccharine attempt to please every palate.
©2015 Vince Leo