Sanctum is a drippy adventure thriller set in an unexplored cave system, most of which is submerged. It starts off fun enough with plenty of amazing visuals, but very soon drowns in predictability and clichéd spelunking scenarios. The movie is beautiful to watch at times, but ultimately feels underdone.
When Universal released this film in 3-D a few months ago, it underperformed in a big way despite having James Cameron’s name attached as executive director. He oversaw the 3-D photography effects, using the method he created for Avatar. I usually find post-production 3-D effects unnecessary and irksome, but as Cameron shot this in 3-D and used his own proven method, I think that seeing it in the theater in 3-D would have made the film more worthwhile, as it is heavy on visuals and light on story.
With the Blu-Ray released earlier this month, audiences have the opportunity to check out the stunning visuals for themselves. Though without Cameron’s brand of cinematic magic re 3-D effects, Sanctum has to rely on what’s left; and unless you have a 3-D TV, the cinematography and scenery alone probably isn’t going to make you sit up and stare.
Sanctum’s set-up reminds me a little of Jurassic Park, with some great wide shots of exotic locales and aerial filming of breathtaking vistas. There‘s also the fun “meet-n-greet” with the core characters, and some interesting exposition. Then they’re in the cave system, and the film goes downhill fast.
Frank McGuire, a master diver and adventurer, has been exploring the virgin depths of the South Pacific’s Esa-Ala caves for months. He’s on the cusp of discovering a new cave system, and he and his team have set up base at the bottom of a huge natural-forming hole in the earth that leads to the caves. Rich expedition financier and thrill-seeker Carl is about to join the party, and the film quickly establishes how unexplored this region of the world is, and how inaccessible, as Carl and Frank’s 17-year-old son begin their trek to the giant hole that leads down to the watery cave system.
From the start the audience is treated to some breathtaking shots of lush jungles, stark cliffs and blue ocean. Carl and young Josh, along with plenty of coolies, finally arrive at the site. Quickly we find that Frank’s relationship with his son is estranged, as he is always off exploring and he‘s a no-nonsense, brusque type. A sudden tropical storm rises, cutting off the expedition’s only exit from the cave. They are faced with only one option, trying to follow Frank’s newly discovered cave system to a new exit.
Amidst bad luck, general stupidity, and some of the most dangerous environments in the world, the characters of this film try to make their way to safety. That’s when every caving movie cliché is marched out and strapped on. Character development starts off ok, but soon each role devolves into a clichéd stereotype, and thus predictability is impossible to avoid.
If you saw the trailers or movie poster for this film, you might not know that the director is actually the little-known Alister Grierson, and not James Cameron. Grierson’s direction is lackluster and unimaginative, and as you watch the film you will recognize many scenes you have seen before in other similarly-themed films. The pacing was pedantic, and by-the-numbers. I bring up The Descent because, besides being a great subterranean thriller, there were scenes in Sanctum that were taken straight from it. From some of the death scenes, to the tricks used to build the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia (though The Descent did them successfully, whereas Sanctum foundered).
Then there’s the sad script; not everything can be blamed on the director, after all. The story was created by Andrew Wight, who worked on the script with fellow scribe John Garvin. Wight is actually a cave diver and adventurer, so no doubt the inspiration from this story came from some of his own experiences. On the down side, neither Wight nor Garvin have ever written a feature film. From the clichéd situations to the really trite dialogue, their lack of experience (and talent) shows.
The characters were written with one-dimensional obtuseness, and failed to engage the audience. That being said, the actors certainly didn’t take what they were given and do anything of note with it. Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge) led the cast with a steely portrayal of diving master Frank. Even though his was one of the better performances, it still played too strong and lacked the needed vulnerability. Rhys Wakefield did a competent job as the wounded son who discovers his father is a hero. He came across a little whiney and unreasonable at times, instead of taking his character’s anxiety and turning it into something believable. Ioan Gruffudd’s performance as the arrogant American backer certainly wasn’t up to par. I think the horrible dialogue was simply too much for him, in the end.
3-D shtick aside, the Blu-Ray visuals brought the amazing scenery to crisp relief. The first movement of the film does particularly well in high def, with the above-mentioned vistas vibrant and colorful. The saturation levels are good, and the sun-bathed scenes are a pleasure to watch. But as soon as the camera sinks into the subterranean environment, things start looking less sleek and more amateurish. Since most of the film is shot underwater or in darkened crevices, the use of green screens and other filming manipulations cause some problems. These cave scenes don’t feel too dark or obscured, and thus end up unnaturally bright. The background blacks don’t come through true either, and everything takes on a dark greyish hue. There is also a lack of depth to the subterranean shots, and a foreshortening effect that make certain scenes look one-dimensional.
Sounds came through in typical HD surround quality. From the echoing rock chambers to the roar of rushing water, the sound effects were one of the better elements of the film. The soundtrack wasn’t much better than the uninspired script and the unpalatable acting. It was your basic adventure music, swelling at the right moments and dropping into the background when not needed. Dialogue came through crisp and clear.
The Blu-Ray does have some decent extras (though this doesn’t make up for the crummy movie). There’s an audio commentary with director Grierson and co-writer Wight and Wakefield (Josh’s character). There’s some fun back-and-forth between these three, and some insider info. Cameron is not on the audio commentary, in case you’re hoping he is.
Sanctum: The Real Story is a lengthy making-of documentary. It is broken into three parts, from the inception of the story behind Sanctum, through the trials and tribulations of filming, to the aftermath and final cut. This extra gives a lot of in-depth information, documentary-style, and if you are a fan of the film it’s a must-see.
There is a second lengthy documentary called Nullarbor Dreaming, made by Wight 22 years ago. Wight filmed a team of divers (of which he was a part) as they explored the Pannikin Plain Cave in Australia. The documentary follows a cave-in that endangered the crew’s lives.
The last of the extras include the requisite deleted scenes, nothing special here, as well as some BD-Live Functionality and News Ticker.
Sanctum is simply a stale attempt at a survival thriller that fails on many levels. That Cameron would put his name to this, and spend so much time and energy using his 3-D technique on it, seems creatively wasteful. Without the 3-D effects to recommend it, Sanctum on Blu-Ray isn’t even worth a rent.
Sanctum starts off fun enough with a slow burn tension, but very soon drowns in predictability and clichéd spelunking scenarios.