Theatrical Review: Sanctum

Based on a true story, Sanctum tells the tale of a group of underwater cave divers as they attempt to explore one of the largest and least accessible cave settings on the planet, the Esa-ala caves in the South Pacific.  Thanks to an incredible storm coming their way, the team’s exit from the system is cut off, trapping the group of explorers and forcing them to navigate through the rest of the system to find an alternative way out.  The only question is whether they can survive the experience, now being totally cut of from the outside world and with limited supplies.

I actually like the idea of telling this sort of story, without having some sort of personified malevolent force that would be in pursuit of the team through their adventure, thinking of telling it like a dramatized National Geographic adventure.  The idea is cool, the execution on the other hand isn’t.

The main selling points of this movie are that James Cameron served as one of the producers of the film and that it was shot in 3D.  As the story unfolds, it certainly has a feel like a James Cameron film, with it’s stock group of expert characters in an impossible situation.  And if anyone could do 3D right, you’d certainly expect that from something with Cameron’s name on it.

I actually think the 3D is pretty good in the movie.  It’s not of the in-your-face variety, but more in giving real depth to it’s setting, and for the most part, Sanctum does this pretty well.

After that, well things just don’t fare too well.

From what I can tell, this is director Alister Grierson’s first major film, and while he does a nice job of initially setting up a sense of place here, it falls apart after that.  Once the event happens that traps the group, you should get a sense of just how arduous the journey is, not just by what they have to do to survive, but also by where they are and the elapsed time of their journey.  Near the start of the film, we have a nice little section shown as a computer graphic simulation which shows just how big this setting is, and I think it would’ve been nice to have somehow kept that as some sort of running piece that showed where this group was as they’re making their way through.  Instead, we just get things presented as a series of events that just happen, seemingly in real time.  In comparison, a movie like 127 Hours does a terrific job with a similar subject.  In just one setting, you get a portrayal of elapsed time and threat to the trapped Aron Ralston, and it totally captures the viewer, you feel Ralston’s journey.

It also helps that you actually like Ralston in 127 Hours, the characters in Sanctum are just stock one and two-dimensional cyphers for the most part. They run through the traditional motions, in particular with a tired father-son conflict between Frank, the leader of the expedition (he’s like the Cousteau of the cave diving world) and his son Josh, who just doesn’t want that life.  To their credit, I think actors Richard Roxburgh, who plays Frank, and Ioan Gruffudd, who plays his business partner, Carl, do their best to inject whatever life they can into their parts.  They’re just limited by a very ho-hum script.

Rhys Wakefield plays, Frank’s son Josh, and while he looks good, he has very little on-screen charisma.  He’s supposed to be our sympathetic point of view for the movie, but in the end, you just don’t care about him at all.  With a movie like this, you should be in there just rooting for this guy all the way through, much like you do with Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Alice Parkinson plays Victoria, Carl’s fiancée and supposedly quite the explorer her own self.  As such, you would figure her to be a character with resources. As this script plays out, she devolves to being the  “girl” of this piece who in the end is more trouble than she’s worth.

One other comment about the script, this movie is rated R for language, some violence and disturbing images.  Well, I tend to think that the R Rating is more for language than anything else as this script has the tendency to drop quite a few F-bombs throughout.  Now, I’m not against that at all, and even applaud it when it’s in the hands of such guys like a David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino who know how to write profanity and make it profound in their use.  Here, while the screenwriters might argue that this is the way they really talk during one of these expeditions, it comes off more forced than anything else.  It plays like it’s from an inexperienced screenwriter who’s just wanting to make this material more adult so that he’s taken seriously, when really it’s totally unnecessary.

While it’s 3D is good, the material behind it isn’t and so the 3D is just a selling effect rather than being anything that really helps you in experiencing this journey.  I like the idea of making this sort of adventure movie, but it’s execution left me cold, filled with tedium more than anything that gives you a real sense of the danger that you should have.  I also like the idea of using a cast that’s not exactly household names (Gruffudd is the most famous here, having played Reed Richards in the two Fantastic Four movies), but that cast is wasted thanks to a script that makes the characters nothing more than placeholders rather than real people that you want to experience this journey through.

If you’re expecting a terrific journey here because of having James Cameron’s name on the project, you’re probably going to be better served by watching something like The Abyss again rather than paying the money to see Sanctum in theatres.  Already, we have an early contender for one of the most disappointing movies of 2011.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

06. February 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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