A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2011



2011, R, 109 mins.


Josh: Rhys Wakefield / J.D.: Christopher Baker / Judes: Allison Cratchley / Frank: Richard / Roxburgh / Carl: Ioan Gruffudd / Victoria: Alice Parkinson / Crazy: George Dan Wyllie

irected by Alister Grierson / Written by John Garvin and Andrew Wight.


Dammit!  SANCTUM is a frustrating experience at the movies.  How many times have I put my hate on for the manner that Hollywood has taken mediocre to decent films – shot in standard 2D – and hastily given them shoddy 3D upconversions that are barely worth their three to four dollar movie ticket surcharge?  

Now comes SANCTUM, which is one of the very rare films that was shot with actual 3D cameras for proper 3D consumer consumption and the results are intrinsically higher than any of the recent lackluster efforts that received multi-dimensional facelifts.  What’s really exasperating is that the 3D looks quite sensational at times, but it’s pigeonholed within inert storytelling, clichéd and ham-invested characters, and dialogue so banal that the film would have been better served if it came with a mute button...or performed by marionettes. 

This Australian production certainly did something right by employing James Cameron’s 3D cameras and lenses that he utilized to great visual success in AVATAR and the quality of SANCTUM’s (largely underwater) images have a clarity, sharpness, and depth that so many lazily constructed unconverted films lack.  Yet, all of the exquisite eye candy in the world can’t forgive the film’s nagging faults, not to mention that it's a prime example of how 3D – like any other visual effects technique - only works when married with elements we truly care about.  And, for God’s sake, let's clear the air: Cameron himself served as Executive Producer on this production, despite what the film’s desperately manipulative advertising would have you believe.  It’s not so much a clever way to entice people into the cinemas as it is a shameless one, and it ostensibly appears that the studio believed that the only way to get buts into the theatre seats was to use an obviously flimsy Cameron/3D technology/AVATAR linkage.   

SANCTUM begins with the age old “this film is based on a true story” title card, which can only be accepted with the smallest kernels of truth.  Let’s just say that the film is inspired by the near-death experience of its co-writer (Andrew Wight) during which he engaged in a diving expedition miles into a series of underwater caves and was nearly trapped inside when a rainstorm collapsed the entrance.  There is certainly an exciting and rousing film to be made of this basic storyline, but the way SANCTUM fumbles the ball when it comes to creating relatable and sympathetic characters and forging nail biting suspense is a unique feat all on its own. 

There’s barely enough of a raw plot here to be contained within a two minute movie trailer, let alone a two hour film: In a nut shell, hard core adrenaline-surging spelunkers dive into the world’s biggest cave in Papua, New Guinea and then get trapped inside of it with no apparent exit in sight.  In the process of attempting a daring escape members of the team die, one by one.  Now, to be fair, there is a bit more to the story than that.  These explorers hope to retrace an already explored route to get to a base camp and, from there, find another route out of the caves and eventually into the sea.  The film provides a computer simulation of what the characters are attempting that echoes a similar one in Cameron’s TITANIC which explained how that mighty oceanic vessel perished, but SANCTUM’S sim is so convoluted and head spinning that you are left to wonder how any human being ever made it through these cave structures in the first place. 



The film introduces us to five characters that feel like rejected leftovers of a budget priced computer screenwriting program, all of whom become trapped deep within the New Guinean caves after a storm floods them in.   Firstly, we get the grizzled, by-the-books, and methodically stern cave explorer, McGuire (Richard Roxburgh, a decent actor stunted by the limitations of his character and script) and, yup, his estranged 17-year-old son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield, the only performer that seems emotionally invested here) so you just know that son and father – who just can’t get along in the outside real world – will come to bond and renew their family love under pressured circumstances.  Tagging along with the duo on the fantastic voyage is McGuire’s tech nerdy partner, George (Dan Wyllie) as well as the profits-first, people-a-distant-second billionaire financier of the whole trip, Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd, in a performance histrionically all over map) and his explorer girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson) that serves the screenplay’s need to have a nagging female role that is mindlessly reckless and ultimately requires the men to save her. 

We get many bland, obligatory, and watch checking plot elements thrown in here: the father and son squabbling; the unavoidable father and son makeup; the financial interests of Carl versus the purer explorer interests of McGuire; the babe in emotional distress that can’t handle the pressured situation that will occupy a scene that will reduce her to her bra and panties; the danger of taking wrong turns and detours which leads to predictable deaths…and so on.  The annoying problem with SANCTUM is that you never once feel anything for these personas, mostly because they are DOA as interesting and relatable people, but mostly because the insipidly one-note performances (which range from plastic to wooden), the characters' obnoxiously contrived interpersonal stresses, and the lifeless and stilted dialogue all serves to make them props trapped within the film’s 3D effects and visual dynamism.  .   

I mean, how hard is it to write passable dialogue for films like this?  In SANCTUM’S case, it’s deceptively difficult.  When people are not panicking and screaming they spew out cookie cutter lines that are high for their unintentional hilarity quotient: I’m talking lines like “This cave’s not gonna beat me!” and “Trust your instincts and the cave!” and “We must stay together!” and…blah, blah, blah.  Then we are dealt up English actors (Gruffudd) and Australian ones (Parkinson) that pathetically fake their mannered American accents to the point of distraction.  Roxburgh and Wakefield are perhaps the only ones in the ensemble that try to impart some passion and intensity into the proceedings, but considering the sluggish and bland material they are given, it’s all for naught. 

The movie at least looks good.  Director Alister Grierson and cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin make virtuoso use of location exteriors and interiors, CGI effects, as well as what must have been soundstage work to squarely place us with the dark and claustrophobic world deep beneath the earth’s surface.  The film understands that some of the largest horrors of underwater exploration are icy cold water, low light sources, and depleting oxygen reserves.  There are some exhilarating shots of natural beauty in the film (I especially liked one from the sky’s POV of rain pouring into the massive mouth of the cave) and there are individual moments of excitement and tension.  And, yes, 3D may not be the ideal medium for dreary and dark underwater footage (it typically dilutes image brightness), but the makers here are able to foster images of remarkable lucidity and engagement.  Thankfully, they use the technology less for gimmicky, in-your-face shots and more for establishing a sense of depth to the image.   

But, gee whiz, strip this film of its 3D artifice and you are left with no real reason for seeing it.  SANCTUM proves that you can engage viewers with all sorts of nifty and creative visual activity all you want, but unavoidably those efforts account for little when the story and characters can’t keep the whole enterprise afloat (no pun intended) for nearly two hours.  It’s kind of ironic how Cameron a year ago in the wake of AVATAR’s success lambasted the industry for jumping on the 3D bandwagon (which he created) for releasing limp and uninspired 3D content to the masses for the purposes of making a few extra surcharged bucks in ticket grosses.  His choice to produce SANCTUM – an ambitious, but ultimately trivial, forgettable, and painfully pedestrian suspense thriller - seems a bit hypocritical on his part considering his predilection towards quality control.  Just consider this: the film earned a paltry $9 million last weekend at the box office.  Perhaps filmgoers are catching on that 3D alone isn’t enough to commit them to a night out at the movies.

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