Judge Patrick Bromley welcomes you to his Sanctum Sanctorum.
Our review of Sanctum, published June 1st, 2011, is also available.
The only way out is down.
A 3-D movie about underwater exploration? James "Ghosts of the Abyss" Cameron must be all over this.
Facts of the Case
A team of divers set out to explore a series of caves deep beneath the ocean's surface in Papa New Guinea. There's Frank (Richard Roxburgh, Van Helsing), the most experienced diver and leader of the expedition; Josh (Rhys Wakefield, Broken Hill), his estranged son; wealthy Carl (Ioan Gruffudd, The TV Set), who is bankrolling the expedition; his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and several other crew and assistants. As the crew begins to hit obstacle after obstacle on their dive, they wind up having to go further and further down until the possibility presents itself that they'll never make their way back to the surface. Things only get worse from there.
Don't be fooled by the presence of James Cameron's name attached to the 2011 diving thriller Sanctum. It's a bad movie that he had very little to do with, save for offering to slap his named on the advertising in an attempt to give it his "seal of approval"—especially valuable since when Sanctum played in theaters, in was mostly in the 3-D IMAX format. Cameron has had a little success in that area, and if the ads for Sanctum hinted in any way that it would recreate the experience of seeing Avatar, then Cameron had done his job.
Judging by the box office returns for the movie, though (it was unable to recoup even its relatively low $30 million budget, and that's with the inflated ticket prices for 3-D and IMAX), audiences were not fooled. With good reason, too, as Sanctum is a very bad movie, filled with flat acting, embarrassing dialogue and a plot that's right out of Vertical Limit. Remember Vertical Limit? Ever wonder what that would look like in underwater caves? You may be the audience for Sanctum.
Save for some nice underwater photography, there is nothing to recommend in Sanctum. The film is endlessly repetitive in its structure: once things are under way, the team encounters a new obstacle, something goes wrong, everyone shouts and usually one member doesn't make it to the other side. Repeat six or seven times, and you've (supposedly) got yourself a movie. Compounding the problem is the fact that pretty much every character is either a) unlikable b) stupid or c) all of the above. Time and again, characters make the exact wrong decision for no reason, despite having watched their friends and teammates die for doing the same thing (perhaps the most egregious is a character who risks hypothermia because she "won't wear the wetsuit of a dead woman!"). What, then, is the point of the film's basic "man vs. nature" theme? Nature does not render us powerless and insignificant, as Roxburgh's character is so fond of articulating in the movie's many heavy-handed speeches. Nature beats us not because we are small and fragile; it beats us because we are stupid and overly confident in our own mortality and ability to master the elements. Sanctum does not realize this, of course—it's me that's assigning that meaning to the movie.
The performances across the board range from barely-there to downright terrible, as though director Alistair Grierson simply collected a group of professional divers but amateur actors and made them act in his movie. I would even think that was the case if the cast exhibited any sense of confidence or authority when it comes to the diving stuff—pro divers would at least seem authentic in those moments. There isn't a scene in Sanctum that's convincingly acted. Richard Roxbrugh, whose tendency to overact has sank more than one movie, actually comes across the best—a silver lining that you should take in the spirit in which it's intended. Ioan Gruffudd is saddled with the movie's worst, most ridiculous role (the last 20 minutes of Sanctum might actually be crazily funny if they weren't so bad)—not that it matters. I believe the word is out on Mr. Gruffudd, and the word is that he's a bad actor. He's asked to do things in this movie that he's simply not up to, and it made me long for his work as Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four movies. Sure, he was awful in those, too, but at least there he was only screwing up a two-dimensional cartoon character. Here, he fails to be convincing as a human being.
The 2-D version of Sanctum arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal (it's also available in a 3-D version), and for a new release it's actually got some problems—most of which I suspect are as a result of the underwater photography and the fact that the movie was shot for 3-D. The image is very dark (it takes place underwater and in caves), which wouldn't be an issue except that the black levels are uneven and sometimes appear crushed. Colors are often drab, too, and the image looks rather flat a lot of the time—again, ironic given that it was shot for three dimensions and even the 2-D version should display more depth than what's here. It's not a terrible transfer overall—there are a lot of things to like about it—but it won't blow you away the same way that most new releases are able to. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio track is somewhat better, offering clear dialogue in the front channel and reserving the rear and surrounding speakers for some fairly immersive effects and the movie's haunting score (one of the only things about Sanctum I liked, even though it's hardly subtle). It's loud and bombastic when it needs to be, though, which helps interject a little life into the proceedings.
Director Alistair Grierson, star Rhys Wakefield and producer Andrew Wight (who also co-wrote the screenplay) sit down for a commentary track that's reasonably engaging, limited mostly to a production overview with a few anecdotes about the shoot. Only fans of the movie will want to give it a lesson. Better—and more succinct—is the 45-minute "making of" featurette that's been included, called "Sanctum: The Real Story." Though there is some overlap with the commentary, the doc gives a better overall view of the production and even goes a little into the real story that inspired the movie. Also included in the supplemental section is a group of forgettable deleted scenes and a 45-minute documentary, "Nullarbor Dreaming," which focuses on a cave diving expedition that Sanctum producer Andrew Wight was part of and the ways that it went wrong.
I'm no great proponent of 3-D, and tend to avoid it if possible and if I don't suspect the movie depends upon it (meaning I'll make a point to see Tron: Legacy in 3-D but not Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). Sanctum may be the kind of movie that was only worth seeing in 3-D IMAX, where the underwater landscapes could be impressive and immersive. At home—even on Blu-ray and with a big screen—you're forced to pay too much attention to the story, characters and dialogue. Sanctum doesn't get any of that right.
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