Movie Review: The 33
By Ben Gruchow
November 18, 2015

I might be terrible at math, but I don't think that's 33.

Movies based on real-life events - particularly the more recent ones - have it a little tougher than straightforward fiction narratives. When an incident is still housed in what is culturally still short-term memory, like the 2010 San José mine collapse in Chile, the movie based on it has a very short leash as far as schmaltz. What we tolerate and can even be attracted to in something like Titanic as far as music and big gestures and broad, energetic emotional displays fares much worse when the situation involves something we can remember being a part of in the recent past. This leaves few choices for interpretation for the director of a “based-on-real-events” movie, and the only two types that are really failsafe are those that are entirely clinical and academic, or those that are entirely visceral and eschew any large point. This is why 2006’s United 93 succeeded as a film, and why the later World Trade Center bore the signs of struggle with subject matter that was relatively easy as far as temperament and outcome.

By roughly the 10-minute mark of Patricia Riggen’s The 33, we know that we are not going to get a visceral or clinical film about the disaster that trapped 33 miners half a mile underground for months. We actually have our first significant inkling to that well beforehand, at the first scene with dialogue. This is a film set in a Spanish-speaking country, starring almost without exception a Spanish cast, by a Mexican director. And yet it’s almost entirely in English - and not particularly heavily-accented English, at that. This even holds true for written words, as in the egregious display of the note sent up by the miners when they were first discovered. Spanish in real life, English in the film.

Having a Spanish screenplay and Spanish dialogue, though, would not have begun to fix the problems inherent to The 33. Not the least of this is a colossally messy narrative that wants simultaneously to be a rousing story of confinement and survival, a suspenseful technical procedural, and an indictment of lax bureaucracy and corporate malfeasance, and lacks the stomach or technical aptitude to focus on any one of them for more than the length of a scene or two. It’s pretty surprising, actually, that Riggen and editor Michael Tronick are able to pull a halfway-effective final quarter or so out of the morass, but manage it they did. This can pretty easily be attributed to the inherent magnitude of the incident, rather than any particular cinematic success.

The plot follows the broad outlines of reality: 33 miners of varying ages, health, and aptitude for the job are bused from their home city of Copiapó to the San José copper mine, which is identified in the film and in reality as a 120-year-old mine with multiple structural and safety issues. The San Esteban Mining Company is advised of this, in a terse scene in the film’s opening minutes between the shift foreman and the owner of the company. The owner here is obliged to play the role of callous villain, concerned only with profit, and he fulfills the obligation in a way that inspires belief on the part of the viewer who knows about San Esteban’s safety record in reality.

This paves the way for an extended sequence in which we’re given a tour of the mine, and for another one in which the cave-in occurs. The visuals in both of these are muddy, and lack depth or clarity. This is owing to insufficient lighting on the set, as well as to CGI that alternates between convincing (falling rocks) and flat blurriness that we’re more accustomed to from those effects in made-for-TV movies. This is not the fault of Riggen, but the fault of a clearly undersized budget. It doesn’t help the end result any - making the visuals of the mine crisp and expressive could have been either an opportunity or an obligation, depending on where you’re standing - but it’s not something that I think we can really lay at her feet.

What we most certainly can lay at her feet, though, and at the feet of the editor and screenwriting team of Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, and Michael Thomas, is how the procession of the thing holds up, and as it turns out, The 33 is exactly as timid and milquetoast as a PG-13 film based on a recent crisis can possibly be. A game cast - one with main players that effectively communicate the essence of the real people, if not exactly the most accurate mimicry - does what they can with sketched-in characters structured to dispense plot information and complications on a rigid schedule, but I’m not sure Meryl Streep could have done much with any of the female characters here; they exist to worry about the miners, cook and teach children in the tent city set up by the Chilean government outside the mine entrance, and occasionally get into scraps or arguments with each other.

The male characters really fare no better; although there are indeed 33 miners, only a few are given even the most rudimentary of personality shadings. This could be rendered insignificant in a film that captured us with mood or atmosphere or energy. Last September’s Everest did that, pulling our attention away from paper-thin characters with expansive, vertiginous cinematography and special effects. Here, it’s often easier to hear the miners than to make them out visually, and what they have to say is nothing we haven’t heard with more urgency and emotion in disaster films before.

There are some moments where you feel the movie spark momentarily into life. Juliette Binoche gives the film’s best performance as María Segovia, older sister to one of the trapped miners. Binoche measures María’s emotional state much more in subtle changes to expression than in any spoken dialogue. Antonio Banderas may or may not have been the appropriate choice to play Mario Sepulveda, but he brings an authority to the underground sequences that’s sorely needed in an environment where even a late-film hallucination involving an unusual spin on the Last Supper rings in as awkward and sort of goofy, rather than the audacious boldness or emotional statement it’s pretty clearly going for. And in the final minutes of the film, Lou Diamond Phillips’ foreman, Luis Urzúa (he’s the one who gave the initial warning about a potential mine collapse) allows the emotion of the situation to overcome him in a scene that makes up for quite a lot of overbaked monologuing. It was one of the very few times where I felt like I was watching a harrowing drama about isolation and faith, rather than the first or second table-read of one.

It’s all ultimately too disjointed and unsure of its tone and unwilling to step outside of its comfort zone to make much of an impact, though. No better summation of the disparity in tone can be given than the ignominy that is James Horner’s final completed film score. Horner knows how to write poignant, and he knows how to write big, operatic emotion. The pan-flute melodies that occupy most of this film reside in neither, and every time the peppy and light soundtrack kicks in - as it does in every aboveground scene occupying the movie’s middle hour - it rips the rug right out from underneath any potential tension or audience surrender. This is one of the most reliable places we see this happen, but it’s by no means the only one. The production team had their heart in the right place, but this story deserved a more skillful telling.