Sanctum exemplifies what happens when innovation becomes more important than a screenplay. The story is contrived, calculating, and unpleasant, but never fear – James Cameron is the executive producer, and he will see to it that we gawk helplessly at the difficult camerawork, the authentically claustrophobic sets, and the 3D effects. Perhaps it was his intention for director Alister Grierson to experience his own private version of The Abyss, a technological breakthrough that came at the expense of a notoriously difficult shoot. The only difference is that, this time around, the needless suffering is reflected in the finished film, which tells a story so bleak and simple-minded that it’s an insult to audiences, especially the ones that paid extra for the 3D glasses.
It’s said to be based on a true story, but considering the way the plot unfolds, I can’t help but take that claim with a grain of salt. It depicts an ill-fated scuba-diving expedition in Papua New Guinea’s Esa-ala, a vast network of underground caves; the plan was to surpass a base camp deep beneath the surface and continue further in, but things take a turn for the worst when a massive storm floods the cave’s opening and traps the people within. According to the team leader, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), it’s merely a matter of finding an underground river and following its current, for all rivers flow towards the sea. He would, of course, say something like that, for he understands caves far better than the mind-numbing routine of CDs, mortgages, and fatherhood.
I’ve admitted in the past that I don’t understand the thought processes of mountain climbers and thrill seekers. But movies about such people are usually made in such a way that we, the audience, can somehow respond to the unexplainable lure of nature. The best current example is 127 Hours; even with James Franco’s arm pinned between a dislodged bolder and a canyon wall, director Danny Boyle had the decency to explore the simplistic beauty of Blue John Canyon, to show the rock formations bathed in sunlight. Compare this to Sanctum, which takes place almost entirely within the confines of cramped, desolate, dark, waterlogged caves. Such locations fail to inspire a sense of awe. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible to sympathize with any of the characters.
Not that they were well developed in the first place. Their primary function is to spew inane dialogue before displaying many of the ways in which a person can die in a scuba expedition. By the end of the movie, we will have seen examples of the bends, hypothermia, broken bones, and drowning – which, I’m sorry to say, isn’t always an accidental occurrence. One of the characters, the girlfriend of the expedition’s financier, is inexperienced as both a scuba diver and a mountain climber, and that sort of makes me wonder why she was allowed to join in the first place. She, along with just about everyone else, is as disposable as a teenager in a slasher film, and about as authentically written.
The only two characters that matter are Frank and his son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield). The more scenes they share, the more obvious it becomes that Sanctum was manufactured strictly for the purposes of watching them reconnect. They have never gotten along; Frank is an explorer who hears only to the call of the wild, and Josh has been forced to partake. But they have more in common than it might first appear, a revelation that pretty much exists only in movies like this. They will eventually find themselves in a commonplace survival scenario, one that involves someone who has gone mad out of desperation to escape. I’d expect this kind of thing from a western or a horror movie, but not from a man-against-nature drama.
Although not credited as one of the writers, I have an uneasy feeling that James Cameron contributed to the screenplay. Let me make it clear that I’ve always championed him as a filmmaker and storyteller, and that includes his latest effort, the monumentally successful Avatar. But now, I feel I must admit that, in one key area, he has consistently disappointed me: The man has a tin ear for dialogue. With Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic, and now with Sanctum, there is not a single line that sounds like something a person would actually say. You know something is wrong when the only way to counteract the effects of a bad scene is to overcompensate with foul language, which flows freely in just about every scene. This is a surprisingly bad movie, something that doesn’t deserve the name of James Cameron.