Here comes that sinking feeling
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, February 4, 2011
Remember the climax of "Titanic,'' which seemed to consist mostly of Kate and Leo scurrying around below deck, discovering that every path was blocked by cascading water?
Well, "Sanctum" is nothing like that, because a) there are five people scurrying around, and b) they're in submerged caverns, not submerged corridors. Plus, it's in 3-D.
Executive producer James Cameron might not have had much to do with "Sanctum," which is a relatively low-budget production. But the movie, directed by Alister Grierson, does use Cameron's 3-D cinematography techniques (which worked a lot better in "Avatar") and reflects his preference for spectacle over screenwriting.
Set in Papua New Guinea (but filmed in Australia with a largely Australian cast), "Sanctum" sends about a dozen divers on an expedition into sprawling, partially flooded catacombs. The ones who count are crusty master spelunker Frank (Richard Roxburgh); his resentful teenage son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield); cocky American Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), who's financing the dive; Carl's athletic
girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson); and George (Dan Wyllie), a veteran caver who's savvy but burned out.
The sequences introducing these explorers are ineptly written; the dialogue mixes cliches with phony tough-guy banter and TV-sports mottos. (One supporting player rarely says anything but "let's do it.") The movie is most convincing when the characters have air tubes in their mouths, and it's always cause for alarm when the adventurers stop swimming to talk out some conflict.
A typhoon is moving in, which is good reason to exit a subterranean cave system. But Frank is in no hurry, and the colleagues he sends toward the portal find it inundated by heavy rain. The survivors head back to their leader, who vows to lead them to the surface by another, uncharted course. Not all of them will make it, of course.
The subsequent action scenes are well staged, with moments that are certain to jangle anyone with even mild claustrophobia, acrophobia or aquaphobia. The underground mishaps soon make their point, however, and only the most dedicated X-treme sports fans will thrill to every stumble, slip and fall. The sensation of being trapped shifts from the vicarious to the actual.
"Sanctum" opens with the claim that it's inspired by a true story; that real-life incident actually involved co-writer Andrew Wight. But Wight's adventure was a lot less grisly than the one he and John Garvin have devised. This is a movie that features not one, but two graphic mercy killings. Forget "127 Hours": "Sanctum" makes sawing off your own arm look like a minor penalty
for the crime of spelunking while clueless.
Contains strong language, violence and disturbing images.