Patricia Riggen’s The 33 is by no means a bad movie. It is, in fact, probably the best movie that could be made on the subject of the 33 miners trapped in that collapsed mine in Chile back in 2010. The problem is not the film but the material itself. Even with a good deal of the action taking place outside of the mine, a lot of the movie is destined to be dark, claustrophobic and, frankly, slow-moving. After all, this is the story of men trapped in a mine for 69 days — and a story where you go in knowing the outcome. No matter how well-done, how inspirational or how much of it involves the above-ground drama, this is not inherently action-packed.
The 33 does an admirable job of sketching in the main characters before the collapse but has to simplify things in order to do so. This results in something that feels like a WWII movie taking place in a B-17. In other words, it reduces the characters to types who have one overriding trait or situation. We get the outsider (in this case a Bolivian); the old man slated to retire the following day; the guy with a baby about to be born; the nonbeliever and his Christian counterpart (this movie wants to be inspirational, so it’s easy to guess how this plays out); the philanderer with both a wife and a girlfriend still fighting over him; etc. I’m not saying that all this isn’t true — I really don’t know. But I am saying that it can’t escape that bomber-crew feeling in the way it’s handled. Could it have been handled better? I’m not altogether sure it could, which is to say we’re right back to the problem of the material.
The odd thing about all this is that The 33 is on much firmer footing above ground. There’s more room for nuance in the characters played by Rodrigo Santoro and Gabriel Byrne than there is for any of the miners. That’s fine — and it certainly helps the film — but, in theory, this is the miners’ story. And yet, Santoro and Byrne carry the film more than anyone else, including star Antonio Banderas. Their scenes carry an emotional punch that just isn’t in the rest of the movie. Granted, some of the above ground characters are also on the sketched-in side. Let us face it, Juliette Binoche’s (a replacement for Jennifer Lopez, no less) Maria — the Empanada Lady whose estranged brother is detoxing in the mine — is not going to be remembered as one of her great roles.
I realize I’m painting a fairly unflattering picture of the movie, and that’s really not my intention. I certainly didn’t dislike it (though I can’t imagine ever revisiting it), and I truly do think it’s a good movie trapped in an ill-advised undertaking. Technically, it’s even something of a marvel. For a film where a great deal of the story takes place in a dimly-lit mine, it’s actually pretty stunning to look at. It’s no mean feat to light a movie like that and not swamp the images in grainy murk, and that’s something that never happens here. The performances are good, even with the limitations of the material, and Messrs. Rodrigo and Byrne might even induce an uplifting tear or two from you. But, as a movie to get excited about? No, that’s just not happening. Rated PG-13 for a disaster sequence and some language.