In 2010, as you may recall from the news, 33 men were trapped thousands of feet underground when the Chilean gold mine they were working in collapsed. They had minimal supplies, and, at first, no way of even letting those aboveground know that they were still alive. When they finally emerged 69 days later, it was the result of a global effort, and was seen on TV around the planet by more than a billion people. Basically, it’s The Martian times 33, except real. So it’s a shame that The 33 is a missed opportunity to tell what should be a captivating tale not only of survival but of the whole planet coming together in suspense and hope.
Director Patricia Riggen (Under the Same Moon) manages to create some tension, if of a typical disaster-movie sort, during the actual collapse, which is terrifying. But after that, the script lets her down, and it’s tough to see how any director could make much of its plodding, scattershot recounting of events that cannot figure out where to focus. (The 33, based on the book Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar, is credited to four writers, Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten [Dallas Buyers Club], Michael Thomas [The Devil’s Double], and Jose Rivera [On the Road, Letters to Juliet], which is perhaps the root of the problem.) Just as it seems as if the film might remain on the plight of the trapped men, on their claustrophobia and their panic and the dissent that will invariably bubble up among them, the story flips over to the agitating their families aboveground have to do in order to get a rescue operation mounted. (The negligent mining company is ready to write them off as goners.) And then it’s weeks later, with little sense that time has passed or that, you know, desperation might be mounting. Engineers with special drilling equipment arrive from Canada or Australia seemingly out of the blue, with no hint that the world was paying any attention.
With little dramatic impetus behind what we’re seeing, the cast of big names — including Antonio Banderas (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, The Expendables 3) as the leader of the miners and Lou Diamond Phillips (Hollywood Homicide, Supernova) as one of his coworkers; Rodrigo Santoro (Focus, Rio 2) as the government official who heads up the rescue operation; Gabriel Byrne (I, Anna, Assault on Precinct 13) as the engineer actually making the rescue happen; James Brolin (Sisters, Burlesque), very briefly, as an American engineer; and Juliette Binoche (Godzilla, A Thousand Times Good Night) as the sister of one of the miners waiting for his return — can only wander aimlessly, as if waiting for the moment when the story will jumpstart itself and give them something meaningful to do. There are moments here and there in their wanderings that shine, but they never connect up into a satisfying whole.