In 2010, the world sat riveted to its television screens after the news of a mining disaster in Chile that left 33 men trapped 200 stories below ground. As international crews and the Chilean government attempted to find and free the miners, the rest of the world hoped for – but did not expect – a successful rescue. Hitting Blu-ray and digital platforms this February, director Patricia Riggen’s The 33 attempts to tell the story of what went on underground, and the perseverance of the rescuers above.
Antonio Banderas leads the cast as “Super” Mario Sepúlveda, the de facto leader of the trapped miners whose videologs keep the rescuers updated on the status of those underground. The film opens rather predictably, as we’re introduced to the miners and their families via a retirement celebration.
Many of the usual disaster movie clichés punctuate these early sequences: the old miner only two weeks to retirement; the young man with a baby on the way who doesn’t want to quit his dangerous business; the mine owner who decides to send the men back down, despite early warning signs that the mine might not be entirely stable; and the shift foreman who knows the danger and sends his men down anyways. Unfortunately, the rather by-the-numbers character establishment in the early section of the film does a disservice to the later scenes, many of which prove to be more than the sum of their early parts.
Once we get below ground, the film finds its focus for a time. These are men equipped to survive for three or four days, not weeks, in a very small space. Their nerves are already strained, with several minor injuries and medical conditions among them. They’re enclosed in darkness and they have no idea and, indeed, no guarantee, that anyone above is looking for them.
The cinematography in the underground scenes reinforces the miners’ increasing claustrophobia via tight close-ups of bearded, ravaged faces – and it’s to the makeup department’s credit that no one, including Antonio Banderas, is made to look like a star. Given the darkness of the color palette and the grime covering the men, it takes awhile to parse out all the characters; they become more defined by the small snippets we know of their biographies than by their faces. Their appearance melds into one, a subtle testament that this is a film not about individual survival or the heroism of one person, but about the survival of the community.
Here the film cleaves close to the realism of the situation, emphasizing the loneliness, the fear, and the uncertainty alongside the miners’ basic will to survive. More melodramatic moments are affecting without becoming maudlin, as when the alcoholic Dario (Juan Pablo Rada) begins experiencing DTs, or when the shift foreman Luis (Lou Diamond Phillips) undergoes a crisis of conscience for his part in the disaster.
In a sense, nothing is properly solved and the miners will still be returning to difficult, dangerous, hand-to-mouth lives, even if they manage to survive. In the underground sequences, The 33 manages to defy its more predictable beginnings to develop a unique portrait of a communal crisis.
The same cannot be said for the “above ground” portions, though. Here we’re exposed to the machinations of the Chilean government and the growth of the disaster into a national and finally international concern. The head of the Ministry of Mining Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) heads to the mine to assess the possibilities of a rescue operation. There he meets Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche), Dario’s sister, whose efforts to get the government to attempt rescue becomes one of the driving forces of the above ground sequences.
Yet these scenes play more like the by-the-numbers disaster story that The 33 so often threatens to veer into – every note is hit and every box is checked, with the conclusion inevitable for anyone who followed the Chilean mining disaster when it happened. With the exception of Maria, the families of the miners are only scantily sketched, and so come off as cardboard cutouts that are there more to add tension than to create any lasting narrative impression. The brief moments of true human emotion – as, for example, a heartbreaking moment between two wives who despair of ever seeing their husbands again – are all too few and far between. The film loses much of its power in these sequences that, far from capturing the hopes and fears of the families, simply play as cheap sentimentality.
The 33’s greatest downfall, however, is in the shift of focus between the under and above ground scenes. The development of the rescue operation and its many twists and turns fails to achieve any lasting tension. The moderate political commentary in the Chilean government’s early lack of concern for the miners might have been played up, forming a contrast between the families desperate for their men to come home and the callousness of the authorities. But even that is quickly abandoned for the more clichéd image of a nation and a world coming together to achieve the impossible – itself a cliché rife with possibilities of which The 33 makes nothing. While the underground sequences maintain a sense of terror and tension, that alone cannot carry the film.
The 33 Blu-ray is attractive as Blu-rays go and I could detect no problems in the digital audio – a mercy, given that there’s a lot of crashing and banging and people talking all at once. I was particularly pleased with the color contrasts that, if done badly, could have rendered the very dark underground scenes almost impossible to watch. But The 33 is a highly watchable film in digital HD.
The special features leave something to be desired, though. Two short, three-minute behind-the-scenes looks are all we get, and then we’re told very little about what went into making the film or the underlying geo-political commentary. I would have welcomed some kind of discussion of the real life disaster or interviews with the miners themselves, but the features are thin on the ground and largely uninformative. We do not even gain any insight into how the special effects were achieved except in small, quick snippets as part of “The Mine Collapse” feature. One has the sense that there was more to this film than the Blu-ray really represents.
Buried in The 33 is a very good film – possibly even a great one. That it’s undermined by its lack of focus perhaps points to what it was trying to achieve: to show a real-life disaster that occurred in recent memory, to do right by the miners and their families without appearing maudlin or predatory, and to tell an entertaining, cinematic story. Director Riggen might have been better off opting for something far less grandiose and more personal, focusing on the miners rather than attempting to tell a back and forth rescue narrative. The real story is there beneath the ground, and The 33 only tells a part of it.
A decent but by-the-numbers disaster film, The 33 suffers from lack of focus and predictability despite the efforts of an excellent international cast and crew.