Sanctum (2011) / Adventure-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language, disturbing images and some violence
Running time: 108 min.
Cast: Rhys Wakefield, Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wyllie, Christopher Baker, Nicole Downs, Allison Cratchley, Cramer Cain
Director: Alister Grierson
Screenplay: John Garvin, Andrew Wight
Inspired by true events (i.e., mostly fictional), Sanctum concerns a group of professional divers, led by the tenacious, visionary diver Frank McGuire (Roxburgh, Stealth), who take on the groundbreaking task of exploring the complex system of mostly unexplored caves (Esa-ala) found deep underground in Papua New Guinea. As formidable as the task already is, massive complications ensue when a giant tropical storm moves in and begins to flood the caves and the entrance collapses, leaving their only option to continue on and hope they have enough supplies and know-how to follow the widening underground river and make it to the exit to the ocean they aren't sure is viable.
Produced by James Cameron (Avatar, Solaris), this adventure tale plays mostly as a survivalist thriller, as the group of divers have no real enemy other than the increasingly hazardous environs, as well as their own dwindling sanity, to contend with. Hoses and tanks malfunction, pathways cave in, divers experience the bends or hypothermia, and their visibility and oxygen begins to run dry. It feels more like a manufactured drama in order for Cameron and Australian director Alister Grierson (Kokoda) to give audiences underwater footage to go along with a standard narrative. Cameron has been an avid documentarian in underwater filming, so it's easy to assume that he would be involved with fashioning another (after The Abyss) possible commercial vehicle, particularly one featuring stunning underwater photography shot in 3D.
Sanctum works best when dealing with the strained father-son dynamic between Frank and his nearly estranged offspring, Josh (Wakefield, The Black Balloon), and the tone is especially consistent when the two actors are the only ones on screen. Alas, the rest of the events are merely a series of unfortunate mishaps that occur, and the other actors aren't given good characterizations, save for Ioan Gruffudd (W., Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), charismatic in light roles, who labors heavily to emote properly in a serious, semi-tragic dramatic thriller.
While made by professionals, and impressively shot, Sanctum unfortunately only resembles a Cameron film in form rather than execution. The subject matter and some of the familial themes are definitely his bag, as well as his producer/writer for his ocean documentaries (Aliens of the Deep, Ghosts of the Abyss), Andrew Wight, but there's little tension, and hardly a moment of genuinely gripping suspense to be found in a film that throws this much calamity into its story. It looks clean and crisp -- perhaps too crisp and too bright to believe it is supposed to be set in a cave kilometers from daylight with nothing but a few small lamps to see with. With a production team more concerned with getting the technical look and feel right, Sanctum's story is given little attention, and it comes off every bit as mechanical and lifeless as the audiovisual apparatuses that are the real stars of the piece.
There's a lot of yelling, a lot of nose-to-nose arguments, and a lot of calamity that occurs, but Sanctum lacks sizzle. Unless you're a sucker for oft-beautiful high-definition underwater cinematography and have already seen the myriad of IMAX films that show you nothing but, it's a mini disaster and human drama film that is still looking for a good story.
©2011 Vince Leo