by Mel Valentin
Whenever the phrase “inspired by true events” or “inspired by a true story” roll up on a screen, anything that follows should be heavily discounted toward BS on the BS-to-truth-o-meter. When, however, that phrase is combined with “from executive producer James Cameron, the director of "Titanic" and "Avatar," expectations take an uptick and audiences naturally expect strong visual storytelling, if not, given the dramatic shortcomings found in both films, strong narrative storytelling. "Sanctum," a cave-set action-thriller directed by little known Alister Grierson and executive produced by Cameron, is, frankly, a complete and utter narrative failure (e.g., characters, story, dialogue, performances) that, unsurprisingly offers a few minor visual distractions thanks to Cameron’s 3D Fusion Camera System.Sanctum centers on the frayed, fractured relationship between Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh, Van Helsing, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), the best, we’re told, cave diver and/or explorer in the world (and probably the solar system), and his twenty-something son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield). The product of divorce, Josh openly resents Frank for dragging him to exotic locations around the world to work as a lowly member of Frank’s cave diving team. Frank’s cave-diving/exploration obsession has led him to Esa’ala, Papua New Guinea, the site of the largest unexplored cave system. The expedition gives Josh yet another opportunity to whine and moan about his father’s authoritarian behavior. Josh doesn’t seems to resent, however, acting as tour guide to Frank’s obnoxious wealthy benefactor and an extreme adventuring aficionado, Carl (Ioan Gruffudd, employing an unnecessary, on-again, off-again American accent), and Carl’s attractive girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), an experienced climber (she climbed Mt. Everest with Carl). That experience, however, doesn't extend to cave exploring and cave diving.
"Your breath will be taken away... by continous bouts of laughter."
Frank’s supposedly expert cave-diving/exploration team includes Judes (Allison Cratchley), a cave diver second only to Frank experience wise (or at least that seems to be the case until she makes a costly mistake), Crazy George (Dan Wyllie), Frank's close friend and onetime cave-diver-turned-team-manager (we never learn why he’s called “Crazy”), and Luko (Cramer Cain), the token Aboriginal whose fate is sealed the moment he speaks his first, quickly forgotten line. Frank’s team also includes several other characters, as unimportant to describe here as they are to Sanctum's ultimate outcome. Despite advanced weather-tracking equipment, a sudden rainstorm-turned-cyclone surprises the team, floods the underground cave system, and loosens a boulder before they can get out. Forced to improvise, Frank makes the risky decision to lead the team through the still-unexplored cave system in the hope, possibly unfounded, of finding another way out.
The script by John Garvin and Andrew Wight, the cave diving pro whose near-death experience provided Sanctum with the “inspired by true events” tagline, would have easily failed a screenwriting 101 course. Any description of Sanctum’s narrative arc, however, under-represents Sanctum’s abject awfulness, beginning with an implausible, cliché-ridden story, shallow, one-dimensional characters (more caricatures than characters), cringe- and laughter-inducing faux-profound dialogue that only the intellect-challenged would utter (and even then, probably not), the repeated attempts, all of them dismal, to refocus the story on the father-son relationship (Garvin and Wight reveal Frank’s depth by having him recite the first few line of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan,” a poem familiar to every high-school freshman), and the ham-handed performances by an under-talented and/or under-directed cast that should, if there’s a deity above (or below, depending on your belief system), foreclose performing again front of camera for the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future.Why Cameron would become involved with "Sanctum" in the first place, adding his “brand” above the title, seems, at first glance dubious, but when we factor in Cameron’s decades-long obsession with undersea exploration, the 3D Fusion Camera System Cameron explicitly developed for "Avatar," and his statements in the press that the "Avatar" sequel would visit Pandora’s oceans, then Cameron’s decision to become involved seems more rational (i.e., he wanted to test and refine the 3D camera system for underwater photography). Unfortunately, understanding Cameron’s motives for his involvement won’t have anything except a negligible effect on "Sanctum’s" marginal entertainment value.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20718&reviewer=402
originally posted: 02/04/11 20:22:37