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The 33

D: Patricia Riggen / 127m

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gabriel Byrne, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nuñez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Treviño, Adriana Barraza, Kate del Castillo, Cote de Pablo, Naomi Scott, Bob Gunton, James Brolin

On 5 August 2010, thirty-three men working at the San José copper-gold mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert, found themselves trapped seven hundred metres underground when there was a major cave-in. What happened over the ensuing sixty-nine days captured the attention of the world, as the Chilean government overcame numerous obstacles in its attempts to rescue the men and restore them to their families. The men – thirty-two Chileans and one Bolivian – were a mix of mine workers and technical support workers, and they survived in an area called The Refuge, albeit with meagre rations that would only last them a few days unless strictly rationed. As an example of the human will to survive against incredible odds and adversity, there are fewer recent examples that can match the story of the 33.

With such an incredible story to tell, The 33 should have been a sure-fire winner, but somewhere along the way, the makers dropped the ball, leaving the movie lacking focus and tension throughout. We meet several of the miners on the day before their fateful shift, with Banderas’ Mario Sepúlveda and Phillips’ Luis ‘Don Lucho’ Urzúa strongly to the fore. With the quality of their home lives established, and how well they’re respected made clear, we move to the next day and meet some of the other men, such as alcoholic Darío Segovia (Raba), and husband caught between wife and mistress Yonni Barrios (Nuñez). And then there’s unlucky Bolivian Carlos Mamani (Huerta), starting his first day at the mine and completely unaware, like all the others, of what’s going to happen.

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Once inside the mine, and its winding corridors that lead down and down into the bowels of a mountain, the men begin their work but soon realise that they’re in terrible danger. Here the movie becomes a disaster epic, as the mountain collapses around them in spectacular fashion and the lights go out. So far, so good. But once the disaster has happened, the movie loses its grip on the story, and the ensuing struggle for survival juggles for time and attention with the rescue mission going on above ground. This has the effect of lessening the drama of both strands and giving the movie a stately pace that undermines the movie’s effectiveness even further.

By trying to focus on both the survivors and the rescue attempt – spearheaded by Santoro’s Laurence Golborne, the Minister of Mining – the script by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas becomes an uneasy mix of pedestrian thriller and soap operatics, as below ground, Sepúlveda becomes the unofficial leader, while on the surface, Binoche’s forceful María Segovia (Dario’s sister) cajoles and embarrasses the Chilean government into rescuing her brother and his colleagues. It becomes pretty formulaic stuff, even down to the moment when, with the rescue mission on the verge of being called off, María says something to Golborne that gives him the idea that saves the day. It’s an awkward, cheesy moment, and neither Binoche or Santoro can do much with it to make it sound convincing.

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By and large the plight of the men is downplayed, particularly once their rations run out. A big chunk of time goes by without any reference to how the men maintained their morale, or the general physical well-being that allowed them to survive for so long. Sepúlveda is kept at the forefront, while the majority of the other men are painted in broad brush strokes; only Dario’s going cold turkey has any impact, and even then it’s quite muted. Banderas is reliable enough as the de facto leader, but it’s Phillips as the guilt-ridden ‘Don Lucho’ who stands out from the crowd, delivering the movie’s best performance by a By the movie’s end, even the sense of relief that every man was rescued is less enervating than it should be, with even the celebrations of the families feeling perfunctory and blandly choreographed.

Leading the rescue team, Santoro is too fresh-faced to be a Minister of Mining (especially as he doesn’t know the first thing about it), while Byrne’s grizzled drilling expert is seen throwing in the towel too often for his credentials to be that impressive. Brolin appears towards the end when the drilling effort becomes an internationa one, but he has so few lines and makes so little impression that the only thing that’s impressive is that he gets fourth billing in the credits. Representing the families, Binoche’s mix of agitator and social conscience is saddled with the unlikely prospect of an attraction to Santoro that feels like a clumsy attempt to shoehorn a degree of (unnecessary) romance into the story.

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But above all, The 33 is a movie that plods along doing just enough to look like it knows what it’s doing, but thanks to Riggen’s by-the-numbers direction it never becomes as tense or dramatic as it should be given the situation and the lives at stake. At least Checco Varese’s cinematography isn’t as staid, with sun-drenched vistas on offer above ground, and claustrophobic shadows below ground. And there’s a fine, wistful score courtesy of the late James Horner that lifts the movie whenever it’s included. Good as these elements are, however, they still only work to prop up a movie that gets more things wrong than right.

Rating: 6/10 – disappointing and onerous, the story of one of the most amazing survival/rescue events in recent history is treated in such a lacklustre way that it feels as if the men are being let down a second time (they’ve never received any compensation for their ordeal); subsumed by too many disaster clichés, The 33 lacks a sense of real danger and makes a remarkable story feel merely ordinary in the telling.