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January 20, 2011 by Mark Mesaros

I saw a free screening of this… and I want my money back. Do not be fooled by James Cameron’s name on adverts, even if the print is larger than the film’s title. Presumably having something to do with Cameron’s contract with Universal to produce 3D films apart from Avatar sequels, this is a check in a box for him and nothing more. It may have been filmed entirely in 3D, and it may be the kind of exploratory spectacle Cameron favors, but this is not a Cameron film. And, after having seen Avatar, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing, but here it certainly wouldn’t have hurt as Australian director Alister Grierson does a bang-up job at not doing a bang-up job.

So a group of cave divers are on the cusp of breaking through the world’s least accessible cave system after years of labor. Their goal is simply to find out where it connects with the Pacific Ocean and chart its serpentine course. Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and American financier Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), among others, are all set to dive deep into the Earth’s crust when a torrential storm hits, flooding the cave and blocking their exit. The only way to go, as the film’s tagline says, is down. With their diving equipment, cache of Nitrous re-breathers and experience they follow their nose. Of course, things get complicated. And violent.

First of all, not that there’s anything wrong with the casting per se, Ioan Gruffudd, a Welshman, is playing an American. He’s not good at it. Why not just cast him as a Welshman? He takes obnoxious way too far. And he takes stupid risks. Perhaps that’s why he’s American. But nonetheless. The acting all around is mediocre, grounded in the kind of Hollywood gravitas we’ve all come to expect from blockbuster drama this side of the world. And this is further proof that the Hollywood formula is now pandemic, infecting the farthest reaches of the globe.

More disappointing, or rather disillusioning, is the fact that Sanctum is being advertised as a film that brings 3D to new levels of perfection. If this is the best offering in 3D, then, as I already suspected, 3D just plain blows. Frankly, I can’t think of anything that I’d rather see in 3D than not. Also being promoted as a grand spectacle, Sanctum hardly takes advantage of its premise or the technology used to implement it. Too many close-ups, mid-shots, ill-advised blocking techniques and CGI pretty well thwart anything that may have been beautiful or breathtaking. You really can’t see anything. No panoramas. The architecture of the cave, the environs all obscured. Isn’t that the last thing you want to do when you’ve set your film in an exotic locale, a place “never explored by man”? In an already uncomfortably snug environment, do you really need to focus so closely on the actors? This is the same mistake Neil Marshall made in The Descent, except that film was dealing with inexperienced cave explorers so their claustrophobia logically needed to become ours.

Adding to the acting woes is bad scripting. There are a ton of logical gaps here. Even supposing it follows the real-life account very closely, the depictions of some key events stretch the limits. Characterizations are thin and often illogical, such as McGuire questionably drowning an injured team member to put him out of his misery. And just try figuring out what exactly happens with the first death. Someone drowns, but it isn’t made clear how or why. Characters also engage in a kind of verbal melodrama that suggests “action moments”, as if they are participating in a trailer for a film rather than a film itself. Elsewhere, nonstop dramatic music is supposed to substitute for pathos. When will modern filmmakers learn that music is a tool of punctuation, contrast, to accompany or even multiply the meaning of images, and not the show itself? Sanctum might be 15% better if you deleted 90% of its excess score. It still wouldn’t be good, but perhaps it might achieve something like a mood. The best moments are the silent ones where you can hear only the characters’ breaths and footsteps in the ambience of the cave.

One of the few, perhaps only, nice cinematographic moments is of Gruffudd’s mangled face underwater as a band of glow-stick green traces it, with nothing but blackness surrounding. The climactic escape is also fairly well shot with McGuire Jr. swimming without a breathing apparatus, having to suck air from pockets trapped in the cave ceiling. The final scenes, including one where McGuire and son discover an alcove inhabited by a gutted Japanese tank circa 1945, are the only that attempt to stake their own territory visually; the rest of the film could be almost any film that’s set in a dark, damp place.

Basically, this is an Australian action-thriller B-movie. If this were the 1970s that description would probably sound pretty enticing. Halfway through I nodded off for about 5 minutes. When I came to, I thought I was in the middle of an episode of Baywatch Hawaii. Excited at the prospect of barely-concealed breasts in 3D, I was cruelly plunged back into Sanctum’s cave by Ioan Gruffudd’s smug American mug.

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