Sanctum arrived in theaters with very little fanfare, which is surprising considering it was marketed as James Cameron's Sanctum due to the filmmaker's producer role. It might surprise you to see Cameron's named attached to the product until you learn that it's a product of the 3D phenomena, using the same 3D filming techniques that the director used in Avatar.
The film follows a crew of divers who get stuck in the Esa'ala Cave (a real underwater cave in Papua New Guinea) due to a storm raging above the surface. Trapped, the divers only hope for survival is to go through the cave and find a path to the ocean, if one exists.
Our leading men are Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), the bitter, cold, distant professional; his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), a good kid who's only ever wanted to please his father; and Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), a man with so much money that he blows it in dangerous ways just to get famous. These are just our main guys, there are plenty more dragging behind.
Sanctum is a disaster movie. And like all disaster movies, it starts out with a large cast of nobodies so that it can kill them all off. If there's one thing that Sanctum is not, it's original. People die like clockwork, in an order determined by speaking lines. If you only manage to say a sentence or two in the last twenty minutes, be prepared, your time is near.
Despite following established thriller guidelines so closely, Sanctum still manages to keep the tension high and can be a pretty breathtaking ride at certain parts. This is because, where the script fails, the direction saves it. The story itself is straightforward if uninspired and the dialogue is adequate. The director, however, is top notch, thanks to director Alister Grierson's love of his surroundings. The caves, which were filmed in South Australia, are absolutely beautiful and Greirson puts them on display every chance he gets. But as wonderful as it is to see, it has a mixed impact on the film overall.
Taking advantage of your setting is one thing, relying on it is another. A lot of the atmosphere in Sanctum is generated by its natural setting and has little to do with filmmaking talent. In fact, a documentary set in these very caves would likely be as exciting as Sanctum. Now, if the film had a worthwhile script, I'd be singing a different tune.
My other big issue is the heartless way the film kills off characters left and right. Sometimes death is necessary. Sometimes death emphasizes the importance of life. And sometimes characters die just to ratchet up the tension. There's no emotion involved, they're just pawns used in an exploitive manner. To be fair, all of filmmaking is exploitive. Scenarios are concocted to play with your emotions. But in the instance of Sanctum, there was little emotion involved in the vast majority of the deaths.
Unlike the water they find themselves in, Sanctum lacks any sort of depth. On the surface, however, is a fairly capable disaster flick that excels in tension. If you're looking for cheap thrills, this will do nicely.
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