Dir: Alister Grierson
With any James Cameron production, directed by him or otherwise, you can expect some of the director’s major thematic concerns, namely underwater exploration and technically challenging productions. Sanctum feels like a result of Cameron’s interests but lies the middle of an unlikely Venn diagram where the spheres include “low-key disaster film,” “inspirational tale of survival” and “IMAX documentary.” And, y’know what? It ain’t that bad. Which I say as someone who knew nothing about Sanctum but expected a gimmicky underwater horror movie. Sometimes it pays to not research movies before you watch them.
By virtue of rock formations and harrowing experiences, plot of Sanctum is a bit like 127 Hours but not nearly as long. A major cave-diving expedition goes tits-up when intense rain begins to flood the caves and a giant boulder blocks their entrance, so the remaining explorers must venture through the uncharted parts of the cave in the hopes of reaching an entrance, which involves both underwater diving and rock climbing. Once the caves begin filling up, the Poseidon Adventure-esque fun begins as team members are offed one by one in their attempt to escape the cave before drowning. It’s a horrifying scenario to think about, which makes it a great one to watch.
As a basic story, the throughline and plot points are telegraphed — “Oh, hey, check out this light-up necklace my distant father who’s leading this expedition gave me for my birthday as a boy, which I resent but may very well come to appreciate later!” — but co-screenwriter Andrew Wight, who based Sanctum on his own near-death experience as a cave explorer, understands the perils of cave exploring and helps craft a series of events for the characters that exploit these dangers — falls, turbulent waters, decompression sickness and depleting oxygen tanks, among many other things — that are always thrilling. The result is a horror movie where the killer is nature and the victims’ own human stupidity. Kind of like The Descent without the cave monsters.
Character work is minor, because a viewer can immediately identify with these characters thanks to the realistic physical danger and well-executed situations. Being an Australian production, pretty much the entire cast is Australian, the only major exception being the very Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd who, along with Alice Parkinson, affect atrocious American accents, presumably because somebody in the film had to be American to keep US audiences interested. Thankfully, everyone else in the cast gets to be Australian, including the protagonist (a serviceable, if a bit too whiny, Rhys Wakefield). The principal actors all trained for the production and clearly had to spend the entire shoot either submerged or bombarded by rushing water, so for that alone they deserve mad props. So, mad props, you guys.
Richard Roxburgh, an award-winning Australian actor best “known” in the States for playing villains in Mission: Impossible II, Van Helsing and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen gets to be the aforementioned father who’s a bit of a dick, but a dick with good reason — a step up from playing antagonists in American productions. As the best actor in the film playing the most knowledgeable and capable character, Roxburgh gets to have the nuanced role: his practicality about life and death in the caves (for example: if you don’t fuck up, you might not die) seem cold and off-putting, but they’re the sum of a life spent in danger, navigating a seemingly hopeless situation where the lives of a handful of people rest in his hands. I’d love to see Roxburgh in more productions (that make their way to the States) where he doesn’t have to play cheesed-up versions of Dracula or Moriarty. He seems like he might be good at playing real characters.
But the finer points of cave diving and emotional father/son reunions aren’t the main attraction of Sanctum — at least, it won’t be for most audiences. The 3D is what you want to hear about. For all our complaints that 3D is a cheap gimmick employed by desperate studios in post-production to deal with declining ticket sales, it’s also a tool that can potentially be used well in the right situation. Sanctum was made using the same 3D technology Cameron used to shoot Avatar four years ago, and a film with real location shooting certainly makes a better case for 3D than Cameron’s offensively expensive cartoon. The use of physical locations, coupled with Jules O’Loughlin’s cinematography, make the 3D an amazingly immersive experience that further cranks up the intensity of people hanging from things and nearly drowning in flooding caves. The audience I saw it with actually gasped at times, and I can’t imagine that happened during Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Sanctum isn’t perfect — there are cheap slow-motion shots that murder the intensity and composer David Hirschfelder’s score is incessant and obvious — but as a cinematic experience it’s surprisingly effective and engaging, making for an essential theatre experience in the days of Netflix. I expect that Sanctum will at least retain some of its allure once it’s on DVD, but it’s actually one of the few movies that demands the 3D we’re all paying too much for.
by Danny Djeljosevic