Universal // 2011 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // June 1st, 2011
"Trust the cave."
Trailers and TV spots for the theatrical release of Sanctum made a big deal of the film's 3D presentation, and the involvement of James Cameron (True Lies). Both, if truth be told, were massively overplayed. Yes, Cameron did act as executive producer on the film, and the 3D technology he developed for Avatar was also employed. Let's be honest, though. Both of these marketing points are an attempt to cash in on the massive success of Avatar, and only heighten viewers' expectations before the film itself brings them crashing back down.
Experienced diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh, Mission: Impossible II) leads a team into the largest uncharted cave system in the world. Amongst the group are longtime colleague Carl (Ioan Gruffudd, Fantastic Four), and Frank's seventeen-year-old son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield). The group's already perilous trip suddenly becomes a fight for survival when a tropical storm hits, flooding the caves and cutting off their only escape route.
As time begins to run out for the diving party, and the body count starts to rise, tensions within the group threaten their slim chances of survival.
With a slow and inconsequential opening 20 minutes, Sanctum comes perilously close to being a total non-starter. The setup, which sees a group of divers preparing to explore the uncharted Esa'ala caves, suggests a film populated by stereotypes, and from the rookie diver; an old hand who was forced to "retire;" and the grizzled pro, these are characters we've seen before, many times over. Although the film does eventually find an extra gear, the passé plot serves only to undermine any excitement that otherwise might be had.
Director Alister Grierson fails to make any of the film's action set pieces really take hold of the viewer. Like everything else in Sanctum, the supposedly dramatic moments just feel far too pedestrian, like we're just going through the motions. Sanctum effectively has just two scenes that play out ad nauseum. At regular intervals the film is overcome by the urge to kill off another character, and feels the need to telegraph these events from a mile off; these deaths will be bookended by a scene or two of character conflict, before repeating the cycle over and over again.
The main emotional thrust of Sanctum comes in the form of the troubled relationship between father and son divers Josh and Frank. From the off, we see theirs is a fractured bond, as Josh is quick to suspect the worst of his father following the early death of a fellow diver. This familial conflict continues, as Frank shows great reluctance in allowing Josh to take center stage, while Frank's uncompromising views on survival clash with what he refers to as Josh's "wrapped in cotton wool" world. The experience the two share once the expedition hits trouble, which inevitably draws them closer together, is neither engaging nor believable.
The film's monotony is best exemplified in the way that every death is followed by one of Frank's monologues on how each victim is responsible for their own demise. One speech, where Frank attempts to explain his actions -- suggesting the caves are his church, a mirror into which he can look and "see who I am" -- is typical of the overblown, cliché-ridden dialogue that is only exemplified further when the film pauses to focus on character development. Had screenwriters Andrew Wight and Josh Garvin -- not to mention director Alister Grierson -- been more aware of the lifeless characters they had populated their film with, these overlong, tedious, and ultimately pointless moments could have been excised all together. Perhaps this would have resulted in a marked upping of the pace, and a film that at least succeeded on a visceral level. Instead, Wight and Garvin seem intent on trying to adding depth to their lifeless creations, but, in the case of Sanctum, an unlikely poetry recitation is about as much as we get in the way of character development.
The film's final act is desperately unsatisfying. Rather than build upon the idea of a group of survivors working together to make their escape, the plot calls upon a series of unnecessary deaths to thin out the cast even further as the end nears, with one character turning psychotic -- not because what we know of him suggests this as being a possibility, but because the plot demands him to make this questionable leap for the sake of a cheap thrill. A depressingly cheesy finale ensures viewers leave with a sour taste in their mouth.
Whilst it must be said that Jules O'Loughlin's cinematography is undeniably lovely to look at, it still fails on a major level. Considering that ninety percent of the film takes place in underground caverns, the feeling of claustrophobia is conspicuous by its absence. Despite the differing genres, it's hard not to draw comparisons to Neil Marshall's The Descent. Even before Marshall unleashed his cave dwelling nasties, his film had audiences on the edge of their seats, thanks to the terrifying feeling of being trapped in an enclosed space. This is never evident in Sanctum, which robs the film of any suspense it may have offered.
Presented with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, Sanctum looks the business on DVD. Colors are natural, and detail levels are excellent, even during darker scenes. Black levels are rock solid, and the picture is sharp throughout. The 5.1 soundtrack complements the video presentation perfectly, with a dynamic mix that does more to immerse the viewer into the experience than the film itself does. The DVD comes with a featurette, entitled "Sanctum: The Real Story," which is broken down into three parts: How it Began, Making the Movie, and In The Aftermath. Clocking in at 46 minutes, it offers the viewer a good insight into the real-life events that inspired the film, as well as a good look behind the scenes. This is complemented well by the feature commentary, which does well to put into context the level of James Cameron's involvement early on. As it progresses, the track -- which features director Alister Grierson, co-writer Andrew Wight, and actor Rhys Wakefield -- features a few anecdotes, but is in truth a commentary more concerned with the technical side of the film. As well as offering an good understanding of what it took to get the film made, the track also provides an insight into the world of diving that is often more interesting that the film itself. Also included on the disc is a selection of deleted scenes.
Stripped of the 3D that no doubt helped it earn a respectable showing at the international box office, Sanctum is revealed to be a rather limp offering. What action there is feels forced, while the focus on character -- which would normally be commended -- only highlights the shortcomings of the screenplay.
The DVD itself offers an impressive audio/visual presentation, and a solid set of extras, but when the main feature is so uninteresting, why would anyone care to listen to the commentary track or view behind-the-scenes shorts?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Descriptive)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes