There is a sadly hilarious irony to Sanctum's
existence. It's being promoted as a James Cameron
-propelled production, with P.T. Barnum-like levels of name-brand hubris splattered across every ad and poster--and yet the film itself acts as more of an accidental screed against
James Cameron's Brave New World of 3D cinema. Cameron is all about this notion of immersion through three dimensions, even if the characters and plot on screen are as one-dimensional as a quantum wire. Sanctum
is certainly one-dimensional in that regard, but the real tragedy is that for all its promises of being a 3D thrill-ride, its 3D presentation is nothing short of half-assed. If Sanctum
is truly representative of Cameron's vision of cinema's future, we're officially fucked.
Though "inspired by" a true story of survival, Sanctum's
roots in reality seem relatively slight. The script, such as it is, was co-penned by Andrew Wight
, whose real-life cave-diving experiences are the basic framework for the tale that follows. I don't assume that Wight actually went cave-diving with an absurd collection of adventure film archetypes, including a grizzled cave-diving veteran with a preternatural ability to "feel" the caves, his impudent and whiny teenage son, a hot-shot billionaire financier and wannabe adventurer, his wildly inexperienced and panic-prone girlfriend, and an indeterminately foreign fellow who seems to exist solely to be the first one to die when things inevitably go terribly wrong. If he did, that must've been one lousy tour group.
Things go wrong for these archetypes in New Guinea's Esa'ala cave system, which is initially presented as a huge, gaping maw in the middle of the jungle that the actors spend the first several minutes of the movie presenting their own huge, gaping maws at, as they breathlessly express wide-eyed awe at everything around them. The entire opening half hour of Sanctum
is divided equally between marveling at the scenery and flatly, awkwardly explaining the individual back stories and accomplishments of the central characters. Everyone speaks in bite-sized one-liners that punctuate every single scene. Lines like, "This cave will kill you in a heartbeat," and "What could possibly
go wrong diving in caves?" are uttered with such stiffened, dead-eyed delivery that it makes Cameron's own frequently stilted expository dialogue sound like it came from Aaron Sorkin's
Eventually the movie gets to the disasterin', specifically when a massive cyclone sneaks up on the intrepid explorers and begins flooding the cave. We know this, because the son at one point screeches, "The cave is flooding!" at his dad, amid huge sheets of water that pound the living hell out of everyone inside. In a singular moment of psychic-sympathy in the script, the father responds with what everyone in the audience is thinking, as he quips back, "Gee, do you think?!?"
What follows is the framework for roughly every explorers-trapped-in-a-natural-disaster movie ever made. In a weird way, movies in this genre most closely resemble slasher flicks of the '80s, except instead of horny, thrill-seeking teenagers we get less horny, thrill-seeking adults, and instead of an insane monster person, they're picked off by the unholy bitch goddess that is Mother Nature. As the explorers navigate the dangerous cave systems, people die, sometimes tragically, sometimes less so, but always in predictable fashion. When the concept of decompression sickness is mentioned, you can assume someone will die of it down the road. At one point one character, stricken by grief, suddenly turns into a comically self-serving villain. Why? No reason, except that the screenwriters could seemingly conceive of no other satisfying way to kill him off.
In a weird way, Sanctum
plays out like a bizarre copy of 2000's mountain-climbing thriller, Vertical Limit
, right down to its inclusion of a glory-hogging billionaire benefactor, a crazily craggy expert explorer, and a young man forced to push past his reservations about mountain-climbing/cave-diving for the sake of his family's survival. The key difference is that Vertical Limit
, while still a terrible movie, was eminently more watchable. That could have something to do with the fact that it employed actors,
including such luminaries as Bill Paxton
, Scott Glenn
, and the most prolific actor of a six-month period in 1995, Chris O'Donnell
, in comparison, feels a bit lacking, with its most prominent cast members being the bad guy from Van Helsing
, and Mr. Fantastic
One could argue that acting is much beside the point in a movie like Sanctum
. It's a film clearly aimed at being a 3D thrill-ride, with equal amounts of cinematic peril and exquisite scenery to excite us. Admittedly, that scenery is fairly impressive. Cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin gets to go all Ghosts of the Abyss
with his fetishistic underwater shots, and as the film comes lumbering toward its end, the focus on increasingly dangerous cave terrain over people, you know, speaking
, helps draw you in a bit more. But it's never quite enough to actually make you care about any of what's happening. Pretty scenery does little to quell the nagging feeling that these characters' plight simply doesn't matter. It's not thrilling to watch them try to survive because after a point, you don't care if they survive. Perhaps if this went the route of The Descent
and introduced some cannabalistic cave-dwelling mutants...
In one final, cruel bit of irony to seal Sanctum's
status as a cinematic punchline, the film's 3D presentation isn't even all that good. The film is shot in 3D, so the footage is at least bereft of the post-conversion blur that plagues so many 3D afterthoughts. At the same time, halfway through the movie, I completely forgot I was even watching a 3D film. Once the movie ceases its masturbatory LOOK AT THIS AMAZING SCENERY set-up, we find ourselves in a long series of dark caves. I don't know if you know this, but dark caves in 3D look kind of like, well, dark caves. A couple of moments of picturesque scenery manage to remind you that you're wearing those silly glasses, but for the most part, the movie is just one shot of dank, rocky spaces after another, which does not exactly translate to three-dimensional beauty. Sometimes there is water. Sometimes there are trees. Sometimes you get blinded by the actors' helmet lamps. Yay.
Undoubtedly there is a better movie to be made from Sanctum's
true-story inspiration, but that movie would have required a script, decent actors, and competent direction. Sanctum
has none of these things. It's a largely thrill-less, borderline inept piece of filmmaking that makes Cameron's claims of the superiority of 3D filmmaking look like the boastful hyperbole of a lunatic carny. Cameron's rep will undoubtedly emerge from this minor failure pretty well unscathed, but if nothing else, let's just hope he's learned to lend his name with greater fastidiousness in the future.