Though based on an unquestionably compelling story, ‘The 33’ fails to reach beyond the tried and tested Hollywood formula, says Colum Finnegan.
Just five years on from the real-life mine collapse that trapped 33 Chilean miners, comes this Hollywood dramatisation. Mexican director Patricia Riggen has managed to deliver a perfectly serviceable narrative, which, barring some requisite of tugging of heartstrings, seems to stay true enough to the actual events.
A perfectly normal day at work (excepting some safety engineers’ clichéd pleading with a callous, profit-motivated boss to halt the operation) turns bad after the San José mine collapses. Miraculously all 33 men underground survive unharmed and, due to the depth of the mine, settle in for what they know will be a long wait for help, if it comes at all. Though we know 33 men are trapped in the mine, Miko Allane and Craig Borten’s screenplay chooses to focus on eight of them, each with his own archetypal, emotionally-charged hook. These range from the devoted family man/leader/all around great guy, as played by Antonio Banderas, to the degenerate drunk, and all shades in between. (Think old man a day away from retirement, young man with pregnant wife, joker type, spiritual type, outsider type etc.) These men by and large get along, despite the desperateness of the situation, electing Banderas as leader and subsisting on minuscule rations.
Things are understandably tense, with Riggin utilising claustrophobic, low-level lighting to keep the audience on edge for the majority of the film. Though trapped in close quarters in a 30 degrees centigrade mine (prompting Banderas, and indeed most of the men to play the film topless), there is not a hair of homoeroticism to be found. Instead, and probably true to working class Chilean reality, family and religion play the key parts in these resoundingly straight men’s lives. The story shifts from the emotionally charged relationships between the families above, who for two weeks do not even know if the men are alive, to the men themselves, facing their own very shaky mortality. A two-dimensional good guy representing the government, and swashbuckling lead engineer (played here by Gabriel Byrne, who despite his best efforts at a Spanish accent repeatedly, and endearingly, lapses into an Irish brogue), round out the cast and provide the above ground impetus.
Resting in the netherworld between uproariously bad and actually good, Riggen’s film is a very much a by-the-books Hollywood spiel, barring a very odd mid-film collective hallucination scene, the purpose of which remains unclear. But despite its formulaic, and at times hackneyed, characters, the sheer power of the story keeps you watching. That the events draw on real life, recent experience serves to imbue the film with emotion and meaning beyond the sum of its parts.
Had the film taken a more unorthodox route, perhaps presenting us with slightly more nuanced characters and interpersonal relations, maybe it would have done a disservice to the men who actually lived through the event and their families. All in all The 33 is a wholly watchable, respectful dramatisation of what remains a fascinating feat of human perseverance.
‘The 33’ opens nationwide on January 29
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