There is a truly wonderful moment in Sanctum where a pair of characters find themselves swimming through the gorgeous blue cathedral of an underground waterway, filmed in stunning clarity and given extra depth with 3-D camera work. It is an arresting scene, one that makes us forget all else around us and bask in its beauty and enormity. And then the characters speak, and it all goes to hell.
Such is the fate of this Australian export, a cave-diving gone wrong tale that’s certain to go down as one of the best-looking bad movies of the year. With the right amount of self-awareness, Sanctum could have been a decent B-movie adventure, destined to line up between Twister and Dante’s Peak in basic cable movie marathons. Instead, it carries itself with such an air of self-importance that it’s impossible to take seriously.
Sanctum trails a group of adventurers as they brave the last uncharted cave in the world (of course), looking for a channel from its underground waterways to the ocean. When a tropical storm hits, they’re trapped inside and realize the only way to get out alive is to find that uncharted route to the ocean, and fast. Headlining the hopeful escapees is young Josh (Rhys Wakefield), a teen who’s spent his life resenting his father’s adventurous ambitions and now must rely on him to survive. The rest of the characters are so stocky you could probably find them at your local packing goods store. They have the collective depth of a sheet of loose-leaf paper.
And that’s sort of a shame, because when Sanctum gets down to the actual escape scenes, it can actually be a lot of fun. Director Allister Grierson can certainly handle action sequences, giving them just the right pace and tempo to let us feel the tension without making them too frantic. He also shows off his eye for nature, giving the cave itself a definite feel and character that easily holds its own against the rest of the actors. The 3D is also, for the most, put to good use here. Every scene has depth, and the underwater shots look so real that you truly feel like if you lean any closer you might get a splash of liquid on your face. For just his second feature, Grierson has got the technical tricks down, it’s the directing of actors that eludes him.
This is a real problem, because between Grierson’s direction, the acting and the script, the actual characters in the film are so lifeless that often times we find ourselves rooting for disaster. Saying that Sanctum is poorly written is like saying that smallpox is unpleasant. Co-writer Andrew Wight based the film on his own near death experience on a cave diving mission, but it’s hard to imagine that what was said in those true moments of life or death decisions came anywhere close to what we hear here. To give it some cave film perspective, this script makes The Descent look like Network.
These faults could have been avoided if Sanctum embraced itself for what it was, instead of trying to pass itself off as an ultra serious half-adventure half-tragedy. In Twister, there’s a moment where a pair of cows fly past the storm-chasers truck in the middle of a tornado. It reminds us that this is supposed to be fun, that we’re allowed to laugh and smile throughout the mayhem. Sanctum has no flying-cow moment. It is deadly seriously until the end, and it suffers for it. Sure, there were times when I laughed or smiled. But when you’re laughing while everyone on screen is weeping, it isn’t a good thing.
Bogged down by poor writing and soap-quality acting, Sanctum isn’t nearly the adventure it should be: C-