Look, someone was going to make a movie about the 2010 Chilean mining accident eventually. The story made too many international headlines and offered too easy of a big inspiring prestige movie narrative to be ignored. Sure, a tense thriller could have been made or maybe even an honest portrayal of the shady practices that led to the accident. But that’s not where the money is.
The movie was inevitably going to be a cornball crowd-pleaser that spilled more cheese than a highway collision between two Dominos and Pizza Hut transport trucks. Now it’s here and it’s everything you feared, plus a couple of awkward brownface performance you never would have expected.
The biggest problem with ‘The 33’ is focus, or more specifically a lack thereof. Director Patricia Riggen has three storylines that she could have focused on. Most obviously, the movie could have been a sweaty-palmed tale of survival about the titular 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days. Or it could have been about the family members clinging to hope by the sidelines, desperately waiting to see how the story would end. Or it could have been about the people struggling to find the tapped miners and dig them out.
Instead, the movie is about all three of those sprawling plotlines. As a result, it’s not properly about any of them. It’s entirely possible to make a movie about a story this large with a cast this extensive, but that requires a herculean narrative balancing act that none of the four screenwriters could pull off. Just as any one plotline starts to get interesting, the movie cuts away and robs the movie of any sense of momentum.
By awkwardly attempting to cram so much information and so many people into a two-hour running time bursting at the seams, the filmmakers play everything in the broadest possible strokes. Dialogue includes thudding lines like, “That’s not a rock. That’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.” Only three of the miners have any personality, and even those are stock character types, from Antonio Banderas’ impossibly charming hero right down the line. On the outside, the family members are either weeping would-be widows, or hysterical comic relief distractions. The scientists, politicians and businessmen in charge of solving the crisis don’t get any personality at all beyond their suits and wistful gazes off camera. Despite being based on a true story, there’s no sense that anyone on screen is an actual person. They’re all just cogs in a creaky, sentimental machine.
Admittedly, the cinematography is consistently pretty and some of the panicked and paranoid sequences underground carry potency (especially during the hallucinating, starving extremes). Yet the movie never offers more than a scene or two of anything potent or even memorable. Performances tend to be tedious, with Gabriel Byrne and Juliette Binoche’s brownface casting coming off as offensive in concept and dreary in practice.
There’s not much to like here, beyond the fact that at least James Brolin’s role as the American driller was practically cut out, probably because it suggested that the one American involved in the story was the true hero. The thing just stumbles along awkwardly until a concluding sequence that crystalizes the filmmakers’ conclusion by both stating the miners were never compensated for the tragedy and showing the actual men all smiling and dancing as if that were somehow a success.
Maybe at some point there was a movie here with a clear point of view that got mangled by studio interference, or perhaps no one ever knew what the hell this thing was supposed to be. Either way, there’s no real need to sample the final results. You know the story already.