The 33 Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche. Directed by Patricia Riggen. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Given how many people worldwide tuned in five years ago to watch the saga of the trapped Chilean miners, a movie about their harrowing ordeal must have seemed like a slam dunk. The problem with The 33, however, is that it’s about 33 characters. A lot more than that, actually—there are 33 miners below ground, but the film spends an equal amount of time with the folks above ground working to rescue them. The news coverage of the event, unfolding live, had no need to make each of these individuals indelible, but a narrative feature relating a story everybody knows can’t get away with that degree of distance. Instead, a team of screenwriters and director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress) struggle to create drama and personalities, and wind up mostly burying the screen in clichés.
To be sure, there’s a built-in fascination to this saga, which no amount of mediocre filmmaking can entirely undermine. The 33 dutifully chronicles everything: the warnings about instability, prior to the accident, that went unheeded; the collapse of a massive hunk of rock estimated at twice the weight of the Empire State Building; the miners’ efforts to ration three days’ worth of food and water (it would be 17 days before the world even learned they were still alive). And, of course, the film has the advantage of being able to put us down there in that dark, humid tomb, providing a sense of how the men maintained a slim measure of hope. If nothing else, Riggen does a creditable job of sculpting images from thin shafts of light.
Too bad the faces that light illuminates are so unmemorable. Antonio Banderas has the juiciest role, playing “Super Mario” Sepúlveda, the group’s chief morale booster, and he hams it up relentlessly. But everybody else amounts to a grimy, bearded look of concern and a single tossed-off trait: addict, weakling, Bolivian. That last one is a nationality, of course, not a trait—but it’s ironic that the Bolivian character (Tenoch Huerta) is viewed so suspiciously by the others, given that few of the actors are actually Chilean. Some aren’t even Hispanic: French star Juliette Binoche plays the estranged sister of one of the miners, and the role of chief engineer André Sougarret was handed to the extremely Irish Gabriel Byrne. (Everyone speaks English, needless to say.) The whole thing feels very Hollywood-contrived, which is a shame. Without a real sense of authenticity, it’s just a hokey disaster flick.