For better or worse, The 33 is exactly the movie that is expected. Based on the true-life saga of Chilean miners who were trapped underground for more than two months after a mine collapse in 2010, it’s a tremendous story of perseverance in the face of immeasurable odds. Told as it is, however—as incredible as the events are, and given that much more weight for actually happening—the film plays like an investigative news report.
As the group of men struggle to survive and keep their sanity while stuck under thousands of feet of earth, with almost no food, uncertain that help is even coming, it’s easy to get swept up in their plight. That’s when The 33 is at its best. Yet it never moves beyond a simple retelling of the events—as fate, circumstance, or whatever you want to call it piles one trauma after another on the survivors. It’s hard to shake the feeling of watching a made-for-TV dramatization, especially since these events are so recent that you’re more than likely familiar enough with them to know how things turn out.
The movie begins with a festive barbecue scene that introduces most of the main players. Not all of the men are introduced—the majority of them never utter a word aside from contributing noise to layered scenes in the underground caverns where everyone argues. Even these introductions are brief and superficial, establishing the key trait that will define each character. Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) is a devoted family man who adores his wife and daughter and wants to provide for them by working an extra shift on his day off, Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Philips) is a company foreman who knows conditions in the mine are unsafe and Alex Vega (Mario Casas) is an expectant father. There’s even an Elvis impersonator and the obligatory about-to-retire-after-45-years guy.
It’s easy to see where things are going from the opening scene. The miners are all hard workers, and though they have problems—like the alcoholic who has a longstanding feud with his sister (Juliette Binoche), or the guy (Oscar Nunez) who’s cheating on his wife with the woman across the street—they’re still good guys. The executives at the mining company ignore the warning signs of an impending collapse, push too hard to fulfill quotas, and all the usual things uncaring corporations do in movies. And when the mine collapses, the company immediately writes the men off, but their families and one lone government bureaucrat (Rodrigo Santoro) push on.
Banking almost entirely on the dramatic nature of the story, The 33 could have done so much more. The story is inherently engaging, but the characters are flat and rarely probe beyond the surface. Banderas is solid as the leader, “super” Mario, but his role amounts primarily to moving speeches to his colleagues about keeping the faith. The families do little more than weep outside the fences and hold vigil for their men, and the attempts to dig them out of the ground are handled with quick procedural flourishes. The threat of corporate negligence is dropped altogether, as is the notion the government cares more about votes and bad publicity than the lives of the miners. The ideas are there, but they are given the shortest of shrift.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity in The 33 is how the movie scarcely uses its setting to evoke any additional tension at all. Director Patricia Riggen doesn’t play up the claustrophobic nature of their predicament; you never feel the pressure of the walls closing in on the miners. This could have been truly harrowing, but while there is much talk of the men being “trapped,” and instances of them at each other’s throats, the feeling of being entombed never comes across.
In fact, aside from a single scene, a kind of dream sequence or group hallucination in which the men imagine a single spoonful of canned tuna is their respective favorite meal, there are few stylistic touches to set this apart. Opening shots of the wide-open Chilean landscape could have served as stark juxtaposition against the enclosed scenes to come, but the visual cues are spaced so far apart they never provide the contrast they should.
A remarkable tale of battling the odds, The 33 is told in the most straightforward, workmanlike manner. There are inspiring moments, to be sure, but just as many emotional beats ring hollow and manipulative. The story is tamped down and sanitized, there are too many characters for anyone to get their proper due, and the plot unfolds in a series of regularly spaced new obstacles, introduced and overcome in just as fixed a fashion. It’s a shame The 33’s lackluster approach fails such extraordinary subject matter.
Director: Patricia Riggen
Writers: Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, Michael Thomas, based on Hector Tobar’s book Deep Down Dark
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Phillips, James Brolin, Mario Casas, Cote de Pablo, Oscar Nunez, Jacob Vargas
Release Date: November 13, 2015