There are two weekends in which bad movies are left to their deserved fate: Labor Day weekend and Super Bowl weekend. This alone leads one to believe that Sanctum, being released opposite the Super Bowl, would be pretty low in quality. Yet, above the title, one can find the name James Cameron, the director of Avatar. How can this be? Firstly, Cameron did not direct the movie, he merely produced it. One can see his technical fingerprints all over the movie from the use of his 3D camera technology to the large amount of underwater photography.
If you looked at Sanctum solely as a technical demonstration of the capabilities of Cameron’s 3D technology, you would likely be very impressed. Rather than relying heavily on CGI, Sanctum instead explores a vast network of caves deep below the surface of the Earth. It is the last frontier, intones mission financier Carl, played by Ioan Gruffard. It is the last place that no man has dared to explore. Seeing these caves is a breathtaking sight, and a nature movie based on this alone would be worth viewing.
Unfortunately, where Sanctum excels technically, it utterly fails as a movie. Even though one would expect clichéd dialogue from a Cameron movie, this movie goes further in evoking groan-worthy lines. Let me give you a sample: “Frank plays by his own rules.”
If your teeth are merely clenched in pain from reading that, imagine things like this spoken aloud, particularly by Gruffadd, who has fallen quite a way since playing Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four movies. Gruffadd’s over the top acting reminds us all how much actors rely on direction to give a good performance.
While most of the actors do not step too far over the line, the screenplay gives them little to do other than to panic or not panic. Sanctum resembles a horror movie more than an adventure, with the hubris of man met by the elements of nature. In this case, it is a torrential downpour which makes escape from the deep cave impossible, leaving the few members of the crew to attempt an escape to the ocean by exploring uncharted paths of the cave.
This may have worked well, but the progression of the plot amounts to little more than watching a little timer tick away over each cast member’s head, waiting for the moment when the claustrophobic environment or an unexpected snag lead them to a moment of panic. Panic is the monster in this movie, slaying all who succumb to it.
Perhaps this is a realistic reason for someone to die (and a lot of people die in this movie), but it grows wearisome very fast. Only Frank, played by Richard Roxburgh, the lead diver on the expedition, seems to be immune to it. Of course, being emotionally cut off is going to cause tension with his son Josh, who gets trapped along with his father. Emotional bonding in 3, 2, 1….
Apart from the atrocities of the plot, there are a few moments of genuine tension, mostly involving environmental hazards carved from the very rock. Much of this is heightened by the IMAX 3D presentation, with the sound working overtime on the rushing water, while the 3D gives a sense just how deep certain drops really are.
It is clear that the director Alister Grierson is much more comfortable with the technical aspects of this movie than the emotional ones. Unfortunately, a technical presentation can only carry a film so far. At some point, we have to care about what is going on. Without that, the whole enterprise is lost. The craft of the camera is apparent, and admirable, but unfortunately the movie gets in the way of it’s effectiveness.