(Alister Grierson, 2011, USA/AUS)
Marketed somewhat inescapably as the latest cinematic brainchild of James Cameron, the director who is of course responsible for such colossal hits as Titanic and Avatar, Sanctum sees Cameron, merely producing this time round, revisiting familiar territory with an underwater adventure shot entirely in 3D. Though not directed by Cameron as such, his presence can still be felt in that the screenplay (as with Avatar) is dismal, the acting flat and his knack for foregrounding spectacle over characterisation is prevalent throughout its 109 minute runtime.
Evoking one of Cameron’s previous, lesser known cinematic forays, The Abyss, Sanctum’s storyline follows a group of divers on an underwater expedition in the deep, treacherous climes of Papua New Guinea’s Esa-ala cave, an unexplored landmark where danger looms around every orifice. Heading the team is Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), a gruff diving connoisseur who doesn’t suffer fools lightly and has alienated himself from his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), a wide-eyed climber who has come along for the ride, or should I say, dive. Also in tow is Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), a conceited daredevil who is bank rolling the expedition along with his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), a diving novice, though his presence threatens to jeopardise the mission due to his overarching arrogance. As events conspire against them and the group eventually become trapped deep within the belly of the cave, means of escape become futile and they must battle against the rising waters and limited oxygen supply if they have any hope of survival. With the body count rising, the only way out, as the tagline suggests, is down.
From the outset, there are many things that go wrong with Sanctum; the narrative becomes repetitive very quickly, and while Cameron is infatuated with exploring diverse new settings with his beloved 3D technology, he and his fellow filmmakers have forgotten to make any of the characters remotely likeable, rendering the quandaries they face, both physically and morally, ineffective and uninvolving. Where the infinite depth of field awarded by the technology is clearly administered, we are instead left with a movie made solely for the purposes of exploiting an underwater location with an added third dimension that never actually works; the 3D is as lifeless as the cast, leaving the film with precious little to recommend about it.
Speaking of the cast, hiring a bunch of relatively unknown, charisma-free actors to play generic and incredibly annoying characters never does your film any favours, and this is evident in Sanctum; not once do they convey any sense of emergence or substance, instead they float around looking the part but never forcing the audience to care for them. Gruffudd is perhaps the weakest link, never before has he been so flat and out of place than he is here, and the fact that we never learn of his characters financial incentives render his existence predominantly worthless. Similarly, Aussie newcomer Wakefield never rises above emotionless and Roxburgh does nothing more than mumble and growl his way through his lines. Moreover, the dialogue is as crass as it is clunky, laughable and stale, trying hard to be desperately funnier and more dramatic than it actually is. “That hole looks tighter than a nuns’ nasty” is one of many tasteful one liners.
Once again proving that adding a third dimension to a film does it no favours, audiences will have to wait even longer to get their 3D-related kicks in the form of Werner Herzog’s cave documentary Caves of Forgotten Dreams which, judging by the trailer alone, looks immersive, stunning and compelling, everything Sanctum tries and fails to be.