Something about The 33 feels obligatory. Like some money men saw the events of the 2010 Chilean mine disaster – in which 33 men were trapped underground for over two months – and dutifully bought the rights without further thought.
That said, the film’s helmer is Patricia Riggen, a director from Mexico, and she has a good eye. The opening shots of the Chilean desert make for a poignant palate cleanser. And later, when an enormous rock entombs the men in the mine, Riggen brings a primeval sense to her long pans over the stone’s facade, as if the mountain itself was a living, predatory thing.
The script knows what its job is, and begins with the requisite disaster move character introductions: We meet Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas), an old hand who snoozes through the two-hour truck ride down the mine shaft. Then there’s Darío Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba), an alcoholic burnout who’s about to be forced to go cold turkey in the most blunt way imaginable. Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) is the mining crew’s chief, who put mirrors in the cracks in the earth so he could gauge when the rocks shift.
Sure enough, Don discovers that some of the mirrors have broken. When he goes to the company higher-ups and warns that the shaft is unstable, he’s rebuffed and told to get on with bringing up more gold.
After an impressive collapse sequence, the men gather in the mine’s emergency shelter. That’s when they discover the radio doesn’t work, the first aid supplies are essentially nonexistent, and the stock of food is shockingly meager. The dire reality forces Mario to step in as ad hoc leader, and enforce a strict regimen of painfully small rations. Along with a few others, he quietly works to keep the exhausted and terrified band of men from coming apart at the seams.
Meanwhile, Mario’s wife Katty (Kate del Castillo), Darío’s estranged older sister María (Juliette Binoche), and the rest of townsfolk show up at the mining site. It rapidly becomes sickeningly clear that the mining company intends to just leave the men down their to rot, and wait out the bad press. That leads to a remarkable scene of nonviolent resistance, as the wives and families and refuse to leave even in the face of screaming guards with guns.
The next day, Chilean government official Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) shows up. He’s a suit, yet proves himself an earnest, decent, and capable man, so he kick starts the rescue effort. Still, the engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne) lays out the grim math: The men have food only for a few days, it will take a good while longer that that to drill down to them, and the drill shafts may well miss the tunnel.
One problem with The 33 is that most of the tension operates in this survivalist first half, before the rescue crews punch their initial hole into the miners’ area and send food and water down. But an interesting and distinctly modern twist is the way the media circus on the surface seeps into the miner’s circle. They’re sent jerseys, Chilean flags, a video system, and can read about their own ordeal in the newspapers. When someone offers Mario a book deal while the disaster is still unfolding, the smell of profit threatens to tear the miners’ trust in one another apart.
But other parts are just plain absurd: I seriously doubt Sougarret would actually take the time to animate two Empire State Buildings in his computer presentation, just to make the point about the size of the rock. And Riggen offers up an extended dream sequence, where the desperate and starving miners imagine themselves at a feast, that comes off as unintentionally funny. Then there are the accents: Gabriel Byrne does okay, but I have no idea what anyone was thinking having Bob Gunton try to sound like he was Chilean.
That said the, performances are pretty solid. Banderas gets two monologues, and manages to keep his showboating to a tolerable minimum. Phillips gets a quiet but wonderful scene at the end. And Raba does a nice job portraying Darío’s alcohol withdrawal, as well as his subsequent despair and self-disgust. But the most interesting relationship is actually on the surface, with the slow respect and trust that builds between María and Laurence.
The score, by James Horner, was one of two he managed to finish before his untimely death in a plane crash. It’s not his best work, it has a kind of “Hollywood-ized ethnic music” feel, and once again he brazenly steals from himself (this time from his Braveheart score). At any rate, The 33 winds up feeling less like a tense survival film, and more like a well-polished television docudrama that happened to make it to the big screen. That doesn’t make it bad, or even not worth seeing, per se. But it is what it is.