Home > Reviews > THIRTEEN LIVES – Benjamin Wallfisch

THIRTEEN LIVES – Benjamin Wallfisch

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

On June 23rd, 2018, a group of 12 boys and their coach left a soccer game and went off to have fun exploring the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. It wasn’t an especially unusual thing to do – the caves are a local tourist attraction, and the boys had been there many times before -but on this day everything went wrong. A sudden, completely unexpected deluge of torrential rain flooded the complex, trapping the boys more than two kilometers from the cave entrance, and it was many hours before anyone noticed they were missing. However, before long, a dangerous rescue attempt was mounted, and this quickly became a massive international news event. The story of the boys’ heroic rescue has already inspired several documentaries and films, including the critically acclaimed NatGeo documentary The Rescue, but this new film Thirteen Lives is likely to be the definitive narrative version of the story for western audiences. It is directed by Ron Howard, and stars Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, and Tom Bateman as the leaders of the team of cave divers who ultimately discovered and rescued the boys, alongside a cast of prominent actors from Thai cinema.

The score for Thirteen Days is by English composer Benjamin Wallfisch, whose rise to the upper echelons of the film music mainstream has been immensely gratifying to watch. I’ve been a fan of Wallfisch’s music since the mid-2000s, when he first emerged from being Dario Marianelli’s conductor and orchestrator and began to write his own scores, and he now has enormous successes such as Hidden Figures, Blade Runner 2049, Shazam, The Invisible Man, and the It movies to his name. I have always been drawn to the more classical, traditional side of Wallfisch’s music – he comes from a long line of virtuoso musicians, including his grandmother Anita Lasker who played cello in the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz – and Thirteen Lives taps into this side of his personality greatly. What makes the score different is the fact that Wallfisch also combines this with traditional Thai folk music, as well as some quite experimental electronic writing, as a way of illustrating both the danger of the rescue mission, and the musical heritage of the film’s setting.

The score is bookended by two gorgeous cello elegies, lamenting for the potential terrible fate awaiting the boys, the sadness and pain of the parents waiting desperately outside for news, and the sacrifice of the heroes who saved them. In the opening cue “Thirteen Lives” the cello combines beautifully with a solo piano to capture the emotional depth of the entire event, and eventually brings in the haunting tones of an ethnic Thai woodwind.

The main theme appears again, briefly, in “White Umbrella,” accompanying the emotional scene where the first boy to be rescued is carefully taken from the cave to a waiting ambulance, shielded from view by the aforementioned objects, before returning fully in the relief-filled and emotional pair “All But One” and “Reunion,” the former of which can be seen as a tribute to former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, the only member of the rescue team to perish during the mission. Finally, in the conclusive “Soh Long Nan,” Wallfish adds a new dimension to the theme in the shape of Thai vocalist Natt Bunitita, who intones soulfully over Wallfisch’s orchestra, as if offering up a prayer for the safe deliverance of the children.

Much of the rest of the score is mostly made up of dark, moody, atmospheric pieces that accompany the efforts of the rescuers to reach and save the boys. Cues like “Tham Luang,” “Rain,” and “Flood,” as well as the warm opening moments of “Navy SEALs” and the solemn “Prayer,” use more of the traditional Thai folk music instruments – high pitched string sounds, quivering woodwinds, light metallic percussion tinkles, and soft vocals – alongside a western orchestral wash, and mystical electronic tones. The orchestra sometimes plays little fragments of the main theme here, surrounded by dreamy chords, and in these moments the atmosphere Wallfisch creates is lovely. This music feels like it’s scoring the nature of Doi Nang Non mountain itself; mist-shrouded hillsides, covered in dense foliage dripping with water.

Eventually, however, the music becomes darker and more intense, as the flood takes hold and the boys become trapped. The cues that underscore the rescue itself is at times highly experimental. Wallfisch manipulated instruments to make them sound as if they were being warped under water, and then created ticking percussion sounds by sampling the sound of metallic scraping, tapping, and air escaping from oxygen canisters. Cues like “Dive,” the second half of “Navy SEALs,” the heart-stopping “Oxygen,” and “Everyone Leaves Today” are super effective in context, expertly adding to the level of claustrophobia the divers feel as they squeeze through the narrowest of submerged passages, and enhancing the underwater aural atmosphere where everything is muffled by the sound of water rushing past your face and your own heartbeat echoing inside your ears.

As a standalone listening experience, however, they take some patience. The middle of the album contains several long sequences of highly abstract, dissonant, abrasive music, much of which will be unpalatable to anyone with an aversion to this type of noise-scoring.

“Syringe” and “First Customer” are interesting in the way they use more intense, spiky, thrumming combinations of different overlapping string textures – plucked, struck, bowed – alongside the unusual ticking percussion sounds to underscore the scene where the rescuers first attempt their audacious plan to anaesthetize the boys in turn and essentially ‘package float’ them out of the caves while sedated. The rescuers have no idea whether this plan will work – it’s perfectly possible that the boys will wake up and drown halfway out – and the jagged, agitated strings capture their hesitation and uncertainty.

A quote from a review of the film in The Playlist reads: “With a film like Thirteen Lives there is always a temptation to signpost moments of drama, loss, triumph, and adversity, with an overwhelming score that overpowers and drags the film into a mire of sonic tropes which do a disservice to the narrative and the audience. Composer Benjamin Wallfisch resists all of those pratfalls, delivering a present but unintrusive soundtrack.”

This is, of course, the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood these days, where the last thing a film score should do is make an audience *feel* something. Naturally, I disagree with this entirely – as much as I appreciate the intelligence and thought Wallfisch put into the sound design element of the score, I personally prefer film music that *does* acknowledge moments of drama, loss, triumph, and adversity more directly, and I would have preferred more of it in this score. To me, this is not signposting, nor it is overwhelming – it’s celebrating, and it’s helping the audience to feel the emotions the characters feel in the moment. But maybe I’m old-fashioned. Very few people agree with me on this these days.

Nevertheless, Thirteen Lives is still a good score, which successfully blends emotional, haunting orchestral writing with Thai folk music, as well as a great deal of harsh, intense dissonance for the rescue scenes themselves. Wallfisch said that the blend of two musical cultures together was an intentional reflection of ‘the spirit of international collaboration that was so essential to the rescue effort,’ and on that front the score succeeds admirably; the first cue, and then the final three, are especially outstanding in this regard. In context, it works a treat, but as I mentioned listeners should be aware that, alongside the lovely bookends, much of the middle section is VERY challenging, and I fear that some people may not possess the fortitude to persevere through this sequence’s uncompromising nature to reach the satisfying conclusion.

Buy the Thirteen Lives soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Thirteen Lives (3:50)
  • Tham Luang (2:36)
  • Rain (2:44)
  • Flood (1:01)
  • Dive (3:50)
  • Navy SEALs (3:33)
  • Oxygen (2:15)
  • Prayer (4:18)
  • Syringe (4:18)
  • First Customer (1:15)
  • White Umbrella (3:23)
  • Everyone Leaves Today (4:35)
  • All But One (2:05)
  • Reunion (3:16)
  • Soh Long Nan (2:53)

Running Time: 45 minutes 52 seconds

Sony Classical/Milan (2022)

Music composed by Benjamin Wallfisch. Conducted by Chris Egan. Orchestrations by David J. Krystal, Alex Lu and Silvio Buchmeyer. Featured musical soloists Andrew Findon, Owen Gurry, Naris Sakpunjachot, Somnuek Saengarun and Tontrakul Kaewyong . Special vocal performances by Natt Bunitita. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Ben Smithers. Album produced by Benjamin Wallfisch.

  1. Marco Ludema
    August 9, 2022 at 9:36 am

    Benjamin Wallfisch is quickly becoming one of my favorite rising star composers. Very curious what he will cook up for the upcoming Flash movie.

  2. Michael
    August 9, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    Great review, Jon. I think what the Playlist review mentions is that Wallfisch’s score doesn’t stand out in the scenes because of how low mixed it is on the film and how the dialogue and SFX seem to get a bigger priority.

    You can barely hear the main theme on the movie and in the action sequences, the experimental cues are lost between the SFX which is something so different from Howard’s previous films where the music was always another character of his films.

  3. teacher8007
    August 10, 2022 at 6:49 am

    Opening theme, sounds and texture of the score bear echoes of “Bhopal”, another real life tragedy film scored by Wallfisch. I found the Bhopal soundtrack more poignant through and through…

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