By Dave Wilson | February 4, 2011
Director: Alister Grierson
Writer(s): John Garvin (screenplay), Andrew Wight (screenplay, story)
Starring: Richard Roxburgh, loan Gruffudd, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wyllie
If you’re willing to hunker down with your 3D glasses and overlook the clumsy dialogue and thin character development, Sanctum, the new James Cameron-produced undersea thriller may actually get you clawing at your armrests. Thankfully, most of this clawing will not be due to the awkward human story but to the mechanics of a film that is often genuinely suspenseful.
Cameron and his team, this time led by director Alister Grierson, are experts at manufacturing spectacle, doling out visceral thrills, and stranding us in awesome worlds that are visually arresting and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. And then inevitably, the people in Cameron’s films start talking and scowling and behaving like movie characters put on earth (or under the sea) just to hang plot points on, or even maim at regular intervals. You know those little handheld puzzles where you roll the ball bearing through the maze? The people in this movie are sort of like those ball bearings. Someone needs to roll along and bump against the sides.
Richard Roxburgh plays master diver, Frank McGuire, head of a team of explorers who have penetrated the Esa-ala Caves, a circuitous series of underwater caverns in Papua, New Guinea. The expedition has set up a forward base at the end of a staggering drop through the gaping central cave, and the film has great fun detailing the team’s descent below the surface, most of them rappelling, while the cavalier American sponsor of the expedition gleefully hurls himself over the edge, only to open a parachute moments later. Carved over millennia by rainwater and underground rivers, the caves have never been properly charted, so Frank and his team treat this expedition with the utmost gravity. The ultimate goal of the divers is to navigate the underground rivers all the way to the sea. Simple, right?
Frank’s solemn team of experts and support crew are joined by Carl, the cavalier American sponsor (Ioan Gruffudd), and his athletic girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), as well as Frank’s own estranged, 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield). Josh, of course, can do no right in his dad’s eyes, despite the fact that he works just as hard as the others, even if he does occasionally forget to bring down the spare oxygen tanks. Yes, I know. Never forget to bring down the spare oxygen tanks. If you have any doubts, we can go into all that in a bit.
Now the only problem is that damn storm, which goes from bad to worse faster than you can say, “at least there aren’t any blue people in this movie.” Flash floods erupt, cables snap, lights and generators go down, casualties start mounting, and there’s no way back to the surface. The only hope, of course, is to get those wet suits on and plummet back down to the depths, where maybe, Frank, Josh and the others will find that fabled route all the way through to the sea. Did I mention that they don’t have enough oxygen tanks? And there’s a cavalier American sponsor? Think Paul Reiser in Aliens, only with diving abilities and slightly less hair gel.
It was at this point that I managed to set aside many of my doubts, and let this thing grab me by the throat. The dive and all of its hazards were completely new to me, and this world of claustrophobic spaces, roiling pools, and majestic underwater cathedrals was both fascinating and unnerving. I’m happy to report that there was nothing gratuitous about the 3D photography—no swordfish swim towards you or anything. For the most part, the 3D really does serve the atmosphere by lodging you more deeply in this spectacular world.
But let’s talk about those hazards. Decompression sickness and punctured air tanks are among the less worrisome setbacks these people face. In fact, there are any number of phobias that this film might feed. There are two or three truly terrifying moments that completely disarm your expectations as to who, in a film like this, is safe and who is not. I mean, the film’s opening is so sunny and optimistic, you feel like you’re beaming down with Kirk and the gang for a fairly harmless expedition. And then just after we make it down to forward base, there is an unexpected first casualty that throws this mood off, and lets us know that we won’t be safe until the credits roll.
So the thrills are there, the spectacle is there, but the stilted dialogue and stock emotional conflicts are really hard to get past. I mean, it’s very easy to launch into this whole unforgiving parent and sulking teenager routine. Put Frank and Josh into confined spaces where they are forced to deal with each other and even depend upon each other for survival, and presto, we have human conflict to rival all of that physical torment. Well, no. We’ve seen this too many times before. Equally frustrating is the attempt to present Frank and Josh with a human antagonist, in the form of that cavalier American sponsor. This is so lame and poorly orchestrated, that I really wish director Grierson had faith that this fearsome natural world was antagonistic enough.
As far as performances, Richard Roxburgh is suitably grizzled and driven in the role of Frank. He is icy and obsessed and willing to shut out anything that impedes his goal. But Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who played Reed Richards a few years ago in Fantastic Four, really struggles with the American accent and arrogant persona. He comes across as a somewhat more nasal version of that horrible loudmouth you sometimes get stuck sitting next to on an airplane. I was always aware of him as an actor playing a part, delivering stilted lines, and projecting mightily against all of those cavern walls.
There are plenty of opportunities to groan and roll your eyes along the way, but if you take this film for what it is, a frequently tense 3D thriller set in another visually stunning universe, then you may have some fun with it.