This retelling of the 2010 Chilean mining accident will tug at your heart-strings, despite a tone-deaf script

The Chilean mining accident in 2010 was the epic human-interest story of our age. It had everything – 69 days’ worth of hope-against-hope, dogged attempts at rescue, and heroic survival, right down to a happy ending that kept the world on tenterhooks. It was only a matter of time before they dramatised it.

Well? Not brilliantly, it has to be said. The 33, a Chilean-Colombian co-production, in English, with a multinational cast and Mexican director, stumbles early and often in its forced attempts to fit a certain template: the heart-tugging disaster movie, with clear heroes and villains, guiding our emotions to safe passage through the rubble.

Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera did a better job on The Motorcycle Diaries than he does with this script, which has some very atonal lines – “33 lives is a lot of dead people”, says someone from the government, which can’t have sounded great even in Spanish.

The 33

Among the miners themselves, the de facto leader, “Super” Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) is the one holding out for an early rescue, but foreman Luis (Lou Diamond Phillips) bats this off with the kind of conflict-building clanger you hear coming a mile off: “Rescued? Do you hear any drills??”.

If the story itself proved anything, it’s that a very local catastrophe, with no one famous involved, can grip the world. So why zhuzh it up so much?

Dodgy effects in the mine-collapse sequence don’t help matters: the film’s an awkward, mid-budget halfway house. In the mainly South American cast, Juliette Binoche sticks out like a sore thumb as the estranged sister of an alcoholic miner, delivering empanadas around town with a spray-on tan and shade of lipstick that just screams, “I’m Chilean in this!”.

It really shouldn’t work. But in spite of itself, and for a handful of honest reasons, it just about does. Parts of James Horner’s score – his second to last, before Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven remake this summer – have an irresistible, Titanic-y lilt and sweetness. Gabriel Byrne and Rodrigo Santoro make an increasingly likeable team as the chief architects of the rescue operation. And Banderas’ performance, choked up by hope almost more than despair, is his most touching in years.

The director, Patricia Riggen, takes precisely one imaginative risk – a fantasy sequence with the starving men hallucinating the last supper of their dreams. It lifts things no end. How a film with this many faults can still deliver the emotive release it’s angling for is not, perhaps, as mysterious as it seems – you can hack away at it with a pickaxe, but this story’s indestructible.