Universal Picture’s “Sanctum” follows a small group of cave explorers who get trapped in a vast cave system after a monsoon floods most of the caverns with water. The film is in 3D, so it’s intended to be a thrilling and claustrophobic adventure. Are the walls closing in? Well, they are if you’re one of the unlucky people stuck in a theatre watching this spelunking dud…
I liked The Abyss, so I was looking forward to another diving adventure. After an overlong set-up, the main characters all get in position in the cavern so the monsoon can roll in and trap them. After that, you can probably guess that they die in predictable fashion one-by-one. Richard Roxburgh stars as the crusty caving expert, Rhys Wakefield as his whiny, angsty son, Alice Parkinson as the eye candy and Ioan Gruffudd (from Fantastic Four) as The Absolute Worst Actor In This Movietm.
Seriously, the acting in Sanctum is … not good. Director Alister Grierson seems to like putting the camera right up near his actor’s faces, so there are a lot of shots of teeth as the actors grin and grit and strain with effort. There is no room in a 3D cave adventure for subtlety, so the dialogue is silly and is usually restricted to the most obvious declaratives, like “I hate you!” or “I don’t want to die!” or “Don’t do that or you’ll kill us all!” What character arcs there are (dad and son have a strained relationship) are little more than a blip on the screen.
James Cameron’s name is all over this film as Executive Producer, and, apparently, Grand Poobah of 3D Technology. Like virtually all 3D movies that I’ve seen lately, the 3D in Sanctum looks slick at times, but is ultimately superfluous. It also gave me a headache. 3D is a trend that I will not miss when it goes away.
Where Avatar used the whole screen for large, colorful 3D shots, Sanctum moves in tight, trying to create a sense of claustrophobia. Usually, there are only one or two sources of light and so much ugly brown that you’ll wish they added a color wheel to the side of the screen just for some variation. Shots fade to black at the edges of the screen, trying to make the entire dark theater part of the underwater cavern. I appreciate the intent, but there isn’t an inspired eye behind the camera. Scenes that are supposed to be thrilling aren’t. Most of Sanctum looks like a cheesy B-movie.
I found The Descent – a much smaller, cheaper film – to be far more effective at creating a sense of dread and claustrophobia. The Descent also felt real, and that was a movie about albino humanoid cave creatures that eat a bunch of female spelunkers. In contrast, Sanctum looks and feels fake and obvious. In one scene, leader Frank McGuire shouts out a series of warnings one after the next, literally telegraphing every single bad thing that is going to happen (in order) as the scene unfolds.
Bad writing. Bad acting. Bad movie.
But at least it’s in 3D, so it looks cool, right?