Starring: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne, Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Philips, Bob Gunton
Rated PG-13 for A Disaster Sequence and Some Language
I'll be honest. I didn't really follow the events of the 2010 mining disaster in Chile. I remember hearing about it, but that was the extent of my knowledge. It's funny, isn't it, how things seem more important in retrospect (although there are exceptions)?
"The 33" probably isn't the ideal film version of the disaster: character development is next to nil, the plot trajectory is formulaic, and the whole film has a manufactured feel to it. But it does do what it sets out to accomplish, which is to provide an exhilarating, emotional 2 hours.
It's August 2010. A group of miners are preparing to go into the San Jose copper-gold mine. The foreman, a man named Don Lucho (Philips) sees broken mirrors everywhere and tells the boss that the mine is unsafe, but his words go unheeded. The miners go to work, but there is a collapse and 33 men become trapped in the refuge 120 meters below the surface. The required escape shaft is missing and there are few provisions in the refuge. The mining company has a history of not being up to standard and giving up on trapped miners after a bit of showmanship, but the families of the miners aren't having it. Led by Maria (Binoche), the sister of one of the miners, they camp out at the mine and refuse to leave until the men are rescued. Escaped workers (who weren't trapped in the mine) contact the news, and the story reaches the ears of the President (Gunton) and Laurence Golborne (Santoro), his Minister of Mining. The enthusiastic Golborne suggests that the doing nothing would be a huge political coup for Chile, and he is sent in to help. After a minor success and some major news coverage, a big mining honcho named Andre Sougarrete (Byrne) is sent in. But due to the nature of the conditions, plus a rock that is "twice the size of the Empire State Building" that threatens the miners, Sougarrete gives the rescue attempt a 1% chance of success.
It's impossible to think of "The Martian" and not recognize that Ridley Scott did it better, but that doesn't mean that "The 33" should be overlooked. It's not as accomplished, but it does what it does with enough skill to make it worth viewing.
Part of the reason is that despite the characters being underwritten, the performances work. Even the always wooden Rodrigo Santoro and the even worse Lou Diamond Philips are good. In fact, they give the best performances in the film. Also good are Gabriel Byrne, Juliette Binoche and Bob Gunton. The rest of the cast do their jobs admirably.
One of the challenges of telling a story with such a huge cast is character development, and that's where this film comes up short. Granted, developing some 40-odd characters within a two hour timeframe is impossible, even without a plot. The key, I think, would be to concentrate on a few and relegate the rest to helping the audience see the story through their eyes. In other words, do what James Cameron did for "Titanic." That film also had a huge cast, but the film's focus was solely on Jack and Rose. Director Patricia Riggen is on surer footing when she stays above ground, because the only characters who have any screen time are Laurence and Andre (and to a lesser extent, Maria and the President). Ironically, when it comes to the miners, she struggles. Not only is it hard to see who is who, she doesn't do a good job of defining who is who. The only ones who stick out are Mario (Banderas in a sometimes over-the-top performance) and Don Lucho (because, like Banderas, Philips is an established actor) and Dario (Juan Pablo Raba), because he's Maria's brother and is struggling with alcohol detoxification.
Still, the film has its emotional ups and downs, the cave-in is acceptably intense, and the end (despite being well known), will leave the audience cheering. That it falls short of "The Martian" or "The Perfect Storm" is due to its scope, but it's always better to shoot for the stars than play safe.