Sanctum – Review


Submersible 3-D thriller pits man against nature, bad dialogue

Nature can be cruel sometimes. Just when we think everything is hunky-dory, the environment goes on the defensive and goes to war with mankind. Sanctum may not feature Dante’s Peak erupting, or Asian Pacific crocodiles in Lake Placid, but the situation is just as dire. Five people must contend with rising waters in underground caverns, where at times they have to climb slippery rocks only to find themselves in another perilous situation.

Loosely based on an experience of co-screenwriter Andrew Wright, the story revolves around characters and their struggles to survive once they become trapped by flooding waters deep beneath the earth in New Guinea’s Esa-ala caves. Master cave explorer Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) leads the expedition, having spent more than half his life exploring cave systems and the rivers and streams that reside thousands of feet below earth. A salty veteran, his passion for spelunking and underwater exploration leaves little room for fatherly duties. His estranged teenage son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), is a late edition to the cave exploration, so all the years of missed father-son bonding on level terrain can be done while trekking through jagged rock formations and surviving rapid waters.

The three other characters in this race for survival are Frank’s longtime exploring partner, George (Dan Wyllie), as well as the multi-millionaire adventurer who funded the exploration, Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), and his girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson). In such adverse times people who are an even keel can suddenly develop combative personalities. So when the interpersonal conflicts do rear their ugly heads, we are thankful that they don’t overshadow the real problem at hand.

But it is in those periods of backbiting that the thriller goes from being thrilling to an outright bore. Insufferable dialogue and laughable exchanges are more likely to force you in to holding your breath until the talking stops. Lovely Victoria remarks, “What could possibly go wrong, diving in caves?” (Pandora’s box creaks as it begins to open.) Great Frank machoisms include “Panic is a vulture that sits on your shoulder!” and “There’s no God down here.” And you begin to understand why his son Josh has no qualms about calling him a Nazi.

If anything the friction Frank and Josh have is understandable – it is the film’s emotional core after all. Emotionally distant father and the son who has probably been disappointed one too many times as being the only participant in the annual family picnic father-son sack race. Their confrontational episodes are welcomed in this trying time, much more than the conflict between Frank and Carl, the ostentatiously rich outsider who seeks adventure with his checkbook, but rarely goes to the length to get his manicured hands dirty.

Still, John Garvin and Andrew Wight’s screenplay remains formulaic and generic in its depiction of human drama. The actors do the best they can with the material at their disposal. Richard Roxburgh, who played The Duke in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, gives the best performance, as it is his character whose back-story that is given the most attention. Gruff and tough, Frank is far from a charming personality. But if forced into a similar situation you need a guy that doesn’t coddle, but one who faces adversity head on. The others are garden-variety characters as found in many “man versus nature” thrillers. At least one is likely to do something utterly stupid in a harrowing situation, while another gets too overzealous and must pay the consequences.

Sanctum is escapist entertainment pure and simple. Nobody is expecting quality performances; they want two hours of thrills. Danger becomes an expectation even in the most mundane situations. A rock climb is wrought with tension once you see that the churning waters underneath are slashing as hard as a “meat grinder” (as Frank puts it).

From the opening moments it is apparent that Sanctum wasn’t a post-production conversion job a la Clash of the Titans. It was filmed in 3-D and it shows. But the technology James Cameron developed for his film Avatar hasn’t quite been perfected. There are instances where fast action is hard to follow, and foreground objects tend to blur. But the underwater caverns help the 3-D presentation since the light diffused isn’t that distracting. Darkness in underground caves is to be expected.

James Cameron’s name may be all over the marketing but be rest assured that this is not his movie. Still, those who remember The Abyss, which is a Cameron film, might see some similarities between the two in terms of attention to underwater photography. Sanctum may have horrid dialogue, but from a pure escapist perspective it has enough positives to recommend as a “man versus nature” thriller, providing plenty of suspense and 3-D entertainment.

Director: Alister Grierson
Notable Cast: Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wyllie
Writer(s): John Garvin and Andrew Wight

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