By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Speaking as someone who is annoyed at and tired of the current 3-D craze at movie theatres, I must admit that I expected the 3-D component of Sanctum to be similarly unnecessary, distracting, and off-putting. Rarely if ever does a movie need 3-D to work.
In this case, however — in a way that’s reminiscent of Avatar — the three-dimensionality of the visuals adds to the film’s dynamic without subtracting from it in any other way. No accident there, come to think of it, because James Cameron, who developed the 3-D process used here, is an executive producer and his fingerprints (also reminding us of The Abyss and Aliens of the Deep) are all over this thin but well-made film.
Sanctum is an adventure-and-survival thriller set in the South Pacific, where a life-threatening expedition is the focus.
Aussie Richard Roxburgh plays an obsessive master cave diver who, accompanied by his alienated teenage son (Rhys Wakefield), a billionaire American financier (Ioan Gruffudd), and several others, have comprised an underwater cave diving team that for months has been exploring a hitherto unexplored cave system, Papua New Guinea’s Esa-Ala Caves.
Their intent is to explore somewhere that’s never been explored, and to find out where the cave system connects with the Pacific Ocean so that they can be the ones to chart its course.
But a tropical storm hits and floods the underground cave, cuts off their escape route, and forces them to go much deeper into the caverns than they had planned to go in search of a viable exit strategy.
They encounter raging water, deadly terrain, dwindling supplies, and their own growing panic as they attempt to find another way out of the underwater labyrinth.
Australian director Alister Grierson (Kokoda) takes the reins from executive producer Cameron and shoots on a succession of striking underwater sets. The movement and action he choreographs seems authentic and remains compelling enough for the constant jeopardy to arouse and maintain our visceral response for most of the way.
In the three-dimensionality of its characters, themes, dialogue, and scope, this is no Avatar, to be sure. But the film achieves what it sets out to do, especially in conveying the beauty, wonder, and danger of the submerged world.
True, the screenplay by John Garvin and Andrew Wight, based on producer Wight’s story and real-life experience, takes a page or two from the Poseidon Adventure “who’ll die next and how” playbook. But that comes with the territory.
The actors obviously did much of their own diving, and the stunts are expertly delivered, which certainly adds to the film’s verisimilitude.
And while not much is asked of the actors on a pure acting level, there are no thespian sins of commission.
The father-son relationship that is at the heart of the movie is minimally effective, but it is sufficient given the narrative focus on escape and rescue. It may be Sanctumonious to say that the characters are on the thin side, but that has more to do with the film’s priorities than any writing snafus.
One thing that the film very capably accomplishes is to take us somewhere we have never been. Not only that, but for those of us who are not outdoor adventure seekers, it allows us to cross the dangerous undertaking of cave diving off our to-do or bucket lists, never to be tempted to even consider trying it.
Two caveeats, however. First off, claustrophobes beware: this one will raise your vicarious dread level pretty darn high. Secondly, if you left 127 Hours saying you never wanted to see anything like that again (see review), prepare yourself. Let’s leave it at that.
So we’ll dive down to 3 stars out of 4 for this intense subterranean thriller. There may not be enough inner Sanctum for all tastes, but the outer action is a nicely executed dive.