Did the Chilean miner story need to be told on film?

A recent, well-known story and cast of big actors doing dodgy accents makes The 33 pretty questionable.

The 33 pic

When something undeniably dramatic happens in the news, many have the impulse to proclaim that “it would make for a great movie.” What they actually mean by that is that the story is inherently cinematic — through some coincidence, real life actually boiled down to mirroring a three-act structure. But how good can a movie based on a real event be if said event already unfolded in a cinematic way?

When the Chilean mining disaster of 2010 happened, it wasn’t a question of “if” they were ever going to make a movie about it but of “when.” The whole world watched as everyone scrambled to save these 33 distinct personalities from a hellacious predicament. It had subplots and last-minute plot twists and a happy ending and a charismatic spokesperson (Super Mario Sepulveda) that would be perfect for one of a handful of Latin-American leading men. The operative here, however, is “the whole world watched” — Patricia Riggen’s The 33 offers little to no additional insight into what most of us already saw unfold five years ago.

Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Philips) is tasked with making sure that the centenarian San José gold mine isn’t teetering on the brink of collapse at all times. When he notices a significant shift in the mine one morning before the miners are bussed in, he’s met with resistance from his boss, who sees the shift as completely normal. The men (led by the aforementioned Super Mario, played by Antonio Banderas) are led into the mine, only to immediately become trapped several thousand feet underground with only enough food and supplies to last three days.

The Chilean president (Bob Gunton) dispatches the minister of mining (Rodrigo Santoro) and a world-weary engineer (Gabriel Byrne in severe fuck-my-life mode) to orchestrate a complex rescue operation while the men wait, communicating with the world through vlogs and slowly going stir-crazy.

The 33

The first strike against The 33 is that it deals with such recent history that most people who’d be interested in such a story probably already know it intimately. Unless the film is expressly pitched at 12-year-olds, it’s painfully obvious from the get-go that it gets into less detail than even watching a handful of news reports at the time might’ve.

Director Patricia Riggen tries her hardest to wring tension out of the situations, but the fact is that pretty much everyone knows exactly how the film will end. There’s at least somewhat of a tense situation between the miners stuck in the mine. On the surface it’s a lot of brow-furrowing and changing enormous drillbits and squabbles between the various miners’ family members who set up camp there.

As you may already have discovered, most of the cast of The 33 is not Chilean. Many are Hispanic, but then you’ve also got Juliette Binoche (filling in for Jennifer Lopez, of all people — Lopez dropped out right before the film started shooting) and Byrne doing half-assed accents that are actually closer to their real accents than anything remotely Chilean. The all-star, all-disparate cast gives the film the feel of a cut-rate 1970s disaster movie, with everyone sticking to their rigid roles and looking consternated as things get progressively worse before they get better.

It’s not all terrible, though. Banderas hasn’t had a role this substantial and charismatic in a while, for one, and for all of its familiarity, the film has a snappy enough pace that it doesn’t get boring on top of being redundant. It just feels kind of pointless when the real thing unfolded in front of our eyes in real time — they even had a camera down there with the miners, which basically invalidates the point of the magic of movies giving us insight we couldn’t possibly have otherwise. It’s a studiously pointless recreation of reality that probably would’ve felt more at home as a special event, two-part mini-series on NBC in 1981. ■

The 33 opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 13. Watch the trailer here: