This Unholy “Sanctum”

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

If you’re one of those poor souls who already watched “Sanctum,” you probably did so for one of three reasons: one, because the film was produced by James Cameron (“Titanic,” “Avatar”); two, because you like 3-D; and three, because you thought the story looked fun. Chances are, no matter which reason it was, you were deeply disappointed with this superficial action thriller.

Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is the world’s foremost cave explorer and diver. He and his team have spent months exploring the Esa-ala Caves in Papua, New Guinea. As he makes progress in his exploration, his financier Carl (Ioan Gruffurd) and his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) decide to pay him a visit.

On that same day, a cyclone causes the cave to start flooding, and the exit is soon cut off. Soon, the group, which also includes Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and longtime friend George (Dan Wyllie), are forced to further navigate the cave in order to find an exit that would lead them out into the ocean.

What makes “Sanctum” fall short on every front is — surprise! — its story. When you’re watching the film, you get the feeling that you’re watching a sci-fi original movie, except that the alligators, dinosaurs or some mutant combination of both (“Dinocroc,” anyone?) are missing. Yes, it’s that bad.

For one, the film is unbelievably predictable. You can easily anticipate which people are going to die 10 to 15 minutes before such deaths occur, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, you can already foresee two events that are just bound to happen. One instance occurs when Josh shows Carl and Victoria a boar-tooth necklace he received from Frank (with whom he shares a rather estranged relationship) that functions as a light source. Gee, surely that necklace isn’t some significant plot device?

Not only that, but there is no depth to the characters simply because you don’t care about them at all. This is due to two things: either they are poorly written and two-dimensional, or they are so dumb that they do not follow the advice of those who are clearly more experienced. One particular moment finds Victoria declaring she won’t wear the wetsuit worn by a dead person even though Frank tells her that she could die from hypothermia from the cave’s cold waters. Later, she mutters that she should have worn the suit — which is after she almost dies from the water’s freezing temperature. With characters like these, you can only hope that they meet their demise sooner.

Indeed, this deadly combination of a predictable narrative and unsympathetic characters gives the impression that “Sanctum” shows contempt for its audience by treating them like children. In spite of its R rating, the film is wholly unoriginal. You see, when you pay to watch an R-rated film, you expect some creativity, or at least something that causes you to think — none of which the film provides.

Given the story’s shortcomings, you can’t help but feel sorry for the cast, even though the characters they portray are boring and despicable. If anything, the actors are one-note, fulfill the bare essentials and any emotions they communicate seem forced. Roxburgh maintains a gruff disposition and growls through the majority of his lines. The usually dependable Gruffurd at first appears to be having some fun with his role, but whatever passes off as enthusiasm, like his attempt at an Australian accent, doesn’t last long. Wakefield, Parkinson and Wyllie also leave no impact, which is probably for the better.

If you happen to be a cash-strapped fellow who genuinely wants to watch this film in 3-D, you’re better off watching it in 2-D (or just not watching it at all). “But it was filmed in 3-D!” you may exclaim. It doesn’t matter because you’re not missing out. How so? The thing is, you can easily tell which shots are meant to be in 3-D, like any time someone falls and any time there are long shots of the cavern. In fact, any time such moments occur, you can think aloud, “3-D shot!” This subsequently renders the 3-D most unnecessary, and also reveals the film’s heavy reliance on its 3-D feature.

What’s worse are the scenes when the film attempts to draw a certain emotion out of its audience. Images that are supposed to make you stare in horror instead invite giggles and howls of laughter because they turn out to be unintentionally hilarious. There’s one shot where Frank is sitting in an underwater decompression chamber, and outside the chamber is the body of a diver (whose death is obviously foreshadowed), whose hand has been tied to the chamber. Sounds terrifying, right? Wrong. It’s hysterical.

However, the film manages to have some redeeming qualities. The sound design is impressive and stands out, like the roaring of water and the sickening crunch of bodies smashing against solid rock. The film does successfully impart a sense of claustrophobia, thanks to the camera angles that show the tight contours of the cave and its passages.

“Sanctum” turns out to be no better than a made-for-TV flick that usurps 3-D and Cameron’s name to pickpocket your money. The only amount of fun you’ll have watching this film is making fun of it.

Rating: 1.5/5 Stars