Sanctum (United States/Australia, 2010)

February 03, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sanctum Poster

There's something about an effective "man versus nature" film that gets the blood pumping. Maybe it's because the situation is often more dire than in a traditional thriller, or perhaps it’s the sheer implacability of the adversary, but the difficulties associated with simple survival in impossible circumstances can provide fodder for an involving motion picture. Such is the case with Sanctum, in which the race to outpace rising waters in underground caverns and perform dangerous climbs over slippery rocks outweigh the various clichés evident in character development. Although it's true that a father/son relationship lies at Sanctum's emotional core, the movie is at its best when it highlights the defiance of the protagonists to yield to despair and give up.

Sanctum is loosely based on an experience of co-screenwriter Andrew Wight, although the details have been amplified to fit the movie experience. It's about the survival struggle of five characters who become trapped by a flood deep beneath the earth in New Guinea's Esa-ala caves while exploring deep underwater pockets and trenches. They are master cave explorer Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh); his estranged 17-year old son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield); and his longtime partner, George (Dan Wyllie). Also in the group are the multi-millionaire adventurer funding the exploration, Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), and his mountain climber girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson). Interpersonal conflicts, of which there are many, become secondary to finding an escape route before rising waters cut off any chance of cheating death.

The strength of the film lies in its ability to wring tension from even seemingly mundane circumstances. After all, this is essentially a movie about characters climbing through dark spaces and diving deep under water. Nevertheless, the sense of danger and urgency rarely lets up, even when the end is (apparently) in sight. Sadly, the movie's dramatic elements aren't as solid. The friction between Frank and Josh never quite escapes from the formulaic bed in which it is consummated; it follows a generic path to a predictable conclusion. Likewise, other human interaction - conflict between the grizzled veteran and the inexperienced (but filthy rich) outsider and a less-than-heartfelt love affair - are presented with less than full-bodied passion. They are better than distractions, because they add a dash of tragedy when one character or another suffers a debilitating injury or perishes, but few will be as impressed by director Alister Grierson's command of human drama as by his ability to master the suspenseful intricacies of cave survival.

The acting is of variable quality. The two known names in the cast, neither of whom has come close to the so-called "A list," give the best performances. Richard Roxburgh, most recognized internationally as Ewan McGregor's rival for Nicole Kidman's heart in Moulin Rouge, is effective as the tough-as-nails Frank, a man who by his own admission is better off in the caves than in the real world (his son provides less flattering descriptions of him which include the words "emotionally closed off" and "Nazi"). Ioan Gruffudd, formerly Reed Richards a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, manages a degree of smug smarminess without overdoing it, not quite rising to Paul Reiser's level in Aliens. The other principles could be just out of acting school for all they bring to their roles.

Because of James Cameron's behind-the-scenes involvement and public support of the film, the elephant in the room becomes the 3-D. Sanctum was not subjected to a quickie post-production conversion; it was filmed in 3-D, and it shows, although one might question some of cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin's choices in shot composition. The 3-D is not perfect - there are repeated instances in which foreground objects become blurry and obtrusive and others in which fast motions can be difficult to follow. The dimness associated with 3-D's light reduction surprisingly isn't much of a problem since this is intended to be a dark motion picture. In the case of Sanctum, 3-D adds depth to the experience. Imperfect though it may be, it doesn't feel like the cheap rip-off that has become associated with this filmmaking niche. In terms of visual quality, a gulf separates what Sanctum offers from what most 3-D movies foist upon us in pursuit of a surcharge.

Cameron's name also invokes thoughts of The Abyss, which can catalogue a number of similarities to Sanctum (although there are no aliens here). What impressed me about both films is the clarity and seeming simplicity of the underwater footage. From a purely technical standpoint, the ability to make an underwater motion picture of this sort in 3-D is worthy of respect. Fortunately, the final product is not only technically adept, but it represents a fine entry into the "man versus nature" adventure category. It's a suspenseful 90-plus minutes whose smattering of deficiencies are outweighed by its positive qualities which include, on balance, its 3-D.

Sanctum (United States/Australia, 2010)

Director: Alister Grierson
Cast: Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wyllie
Screenplay: John Garvin and Andrew Wight
Cinematography: Jules O'Loughlin
Music: David Hirschfelder
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2011-02-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1