In possibly the greatest escape story ever committed to film, The Rescue tells the epic of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, in which a team of twelve association football players, aged eleven to sixteen, and their coach, were retrieved from a complex cave system in northern Thailand. The Wild Boar football team had entered the caves just before they were set to close for the monsoon season but were struck by a sudden burst of rain that flooded the entrances and prevented the Thai military from making contact for two weeks. When they were finally discovered, only a small community of international cave divers was up to bringing them back, and only then with the aid of anaesthetics. In a remarkably risky procedure, all the boys were sedated, put on oxygen, and ferried the four kilometres back to safety. It was amazing that even one child survived, let alone all of them, a testament to the courage of the cave divers, the Thai Navy SEALs and the international aid community at large.
Documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi present the rescue as a modern odyssey, an encounter with the elements at their most brutal. Combining archival footage with expert reconstructions, they brilliant evoke the interior of the cave system as a series of alchemical thresholds of air, rock, and water. Water, in particular, is the ultimate antagonist here, since the boys are trapped due to rapidly rising water levels, which also complicate the efforts to rescue them. The Tham Luang rescue quickly becomes an allegory for climate change – or one of the first global events to be shaped by climate change, since the whole crisis was precipitated (literally) by the monsoon arriving early, in a “sudden and continuous downpour” that may come to be seen as one of the first of the extreme weather events that are starting to typify this early era of the Anthropocene. While the story is extraordinary in itself, then, it also taps into deeper and more primal anxieties about the future of our planet.
In keeping with that vision of water as an antagonist, Chin and Vasarhelyi emphasise the liquid elements of the cave system from the very outset. We discover that the surrounding mountains are made of limestone, meaning that Tham Luang “accumulates water everywhere” and that flooding can occur suddenly and drastically. By the time the cave divers arrive, the water in the cave is turbulent and murky enough to produce a “raging river” between chambers, producing what one diver terms “whitewater caving,” an “underwater wrestling match” that makes it impossible to provide the trapped team with the skills needed to dive their way back to safety. Accruing six inches of water an hour by the seventh day, the cave system could flood completely in minutes, making it ever more hazardous for the divers to negotiate the epicentre of this ecosystem – the “T-junction” between the two main branches of Tham Luang, now transformed into the confluence of two subterranean rivers.
To provide the boys with the best chance of safety, the Thai government has to mount a massive logistical effort to manage the surrounding hydrosphere, especially since the monsoon has come early. In a microcosm of measures that will become more common as global warming progresses, they do “everything possible to stem the flow of water,” rerouting an entire river and waterfall, and pumping out millions of litres of water from the cave system. Even then, the water only recedes a few inches across the system as a whole, meaning that the best the military can hope to achieve is to defy the monsoon for just long enough to locate and retrieve the team. The monsoon thus becomes the one inexorable yet unpredictable phenomenon hanging over the rescue operation, abating briefly as it all gets underway, but destined to return and radically augment water levels without any warning or mercy. Exploring the cave becomes a way of exploring the future, as the divers head first to “Pattaya Beach”, the highest and most comfortable part of the outer cave. It’s an eerie hallucination of a new era of extreme climate and precarious water tables – children stranded on a beach whose coordinates are radically changing – especially this last threshold of rising water is submerged by the time the divers arrive, forcing them to venture further into the cave-future.
While this part of the film focuses on the logistics of the mission, The Rescue also explores the sensibility of the cave divers, and how this infinitestimally small group of people came to possess the skill set that no military establishment in the world could match. Chin and Vasarhelyi made their name as mountaineering documentarians, and there’s a clear crossover between climbing and cave diving, meaning they immediately connect with their subjects here. For all the divers, in one way or another, caving is the last bastion of an older kind of exploration – a fascination with “dark spaces” where “nobody tells you what to do, your time is your own.” The cavers are also driven by the thrill of endurance – one of them only came to cave diving after exploring marathons, ultra-marathons, climbing and kayaking – while there’s undoubtedly a colonial element too, the pleasure of conquering distant and exotic locales. It makes sense they’re mainly white men from the residue of the British Empire.
At a more emotional level, however, all of these men see cave dives as the one place where they feel truly and primally “held,” to use a term coined by D.W. Winnicott. Underwater caves are their amniotic space, just as coming to the surface is a kind of birth, a way of traversing past trauma: “What makes one want to be an explorer? It’s probably two parts ego, one part curiosity, one part a need to prove yourself.” One of the cavers, an Australian, explains that he was driven to explore diving after always being the last kid picked for cricket and footy teams; another connects it to the catharsis that comes from controlling your fears, since “panic is death” in a cave dive. Collectively, they present as a series of misfits, social outcasts and victims of bullying, who all discover in this endurance sport a way to process their past.
As they themselves frame it, this means that they are not “team players,” instead exhibiting the same antisocial spikiness that we see in some of the other extreme adventurers that Chin and Vasarhelyi have documented in the past. Yet the Tham Luang rescue allows them to come together and constitute themselves as a community in a new way – to reconceptualise themselves as team players as they set out to save a team of football players. There’s a profound redemption and catharsis for these men, who start out diving to retreat from society, but end up giving back to society in the most global and visible way. Unlike other feats of extreme endurance, there’s also a pressing communal purpose here, along with a furtive, fleeting vision of how genuine global synergy might be achieved the face of rising water levels: “What does the impossible look like?” In one of the more poignant moments of the film, one of these divers reflects: “ “I used to worry – was I a bit too cold? Was I a bit too unemotional? But I found a use and purpose for that level of detachment. You can use it – to do good things.”
Since most of these men don’t have children, they discover a different kind of care here that challenges reprofuturism as the only way for men to contribute to society. This care is both more impersonal and more planetary than typical paternal care, and depends precisely on each divers’ staunch individualism, which leads them to feel charged with “my child” or “my boy” in a particularly pointed way. The Australian diver’s father actually passes away on the day that the very last child is rescued, but he chooses to remain in Thailand rather than return to the funeral, splitting the difference between reprofuturity and a more planetary embrace. Before that happens, however, Chin and Vasarhelyi dramatize the rescue as a total liquification and abstraction of space as we know it, a vision of the world in which rising water dominates everything. This peaks on the final day of the operation, but a poetic prelude plays out by way of two sedation strategies that are employed at either end of the cave system. Deep in the cave, the coach gets the kids to meditate to conserve energy and oxygen, recalling the mindfulness of the divers, who at this moment are also coming to terms with anaesthetising the boys, and ferrying them, unconscious, through four kilometres of water.
These two gestures of sedation suspend the sunken cave in a more notional liquid space, which Chin and Vasarhelyi emphasise in two distinct ways. First, they resort to a series of incredible cross-sections of the mountain range that submerge the divers only to hang them high above the ground, in a strange zone that is both fluid and elevated, like outer space. Although Chin and Vasarhelyi have build a career filming mountains, these cross-sections reveal a new precarity on the insides of these mountains, which they reiterate through a second strategy – vivid reconstructions that draw out the amorphous freefall and total darkness of the cave. Both approaches conflate cave diving and mountain climbing, recalling one diver’s reflection that it’s “like being in space, probably the purest adventure you could have.” The apex of all this imagery is the eerie footage of the unconscious children being ferried through the caves in what now looks like galactic hibernation, interstellar deep sleep.
As alienated from (and exhilarated by) water as they would be by outer space, the divers end with two trajectories that confront water at its most aggressive and mercurial, as the monsoon finally returns, and prepares to cement its hold on the cave system for the next eight months. In the first trajectory, the flow of water shifts mercurially in one of the final chambers, altering the internal topography of the cave in the process, and leading one caver to lose the dive line. When he manages to grope an electrical cord to the surface, child in tow, he emerges in what initially appears to be a chamber off the main route, an unknown stretch of water. In the second trajectory, another diver realises that the last child is too small for the mask, which will only keep out the water if he applies it at a fragile and precarious angle. To keep this child alive, he has to navigate the tunnels more delicately than ever before, even as the channels start to shift mercurially as the monsoon trickles down through the limestone.
The return of the repressed monsoon finally occurs just after the boys are retrieved. As the Thai Navy SEALs and the coach emerge from Chamber 3, the last before the main access point to the cave, the pump bursts and floods the space completely. A few days after the rescue, the entirety of Tham Luang is flooded, and remains that way for over half a year, in what turns out to be both an early and especially long monsoon season. The closing note of the film is this extraordinarily precarious threshold of rising water, the risk of riding the very cusp of a weather event so extreme that only the most miraculous of international collaborations was able to overcome it – the same effort, The Rescue seems to imply, that must define our future. For all their pragmatic sensitivity to the rock face, Chin and Vasarhelyi end by imbuing the rescue effort with an almost supernatural serendipity, a revelation and transfiguration of what a planetary outlook should be, like the Thai mother who claims that her rescued son has actually been brought back to life, an emblem of how to bring our planet back to life as well.