by Rob Gonsalves
Swimming in a tight cave tunnel miles underground and miles underwater sounds like the most terrifying, claustrophobic experience I can imagine. If you get stuck, you're screwed on two different levels, and either way you're going to die very unpleasantly. Imagine my surprise that "Sanctum," which involves doing that very thing, botches any opportunity for suspense.One scene in particular drops the ball pretty hard. Five divers swim through an especially tight spot. The least experienced diver — a woman — brings up the rear, because, as she's told, "If you panic, everyone behind you is dead." So the first four divers make it through, and then the woman gets stuck. Cut to: four guys wondering where the woman is. Cut to: the woman, being stuck. Cut to: one of the guys, her boyfriend, indicating that maybe he'd better make sure she's not dead or something. Cut to: the woman, finally making it through. What these cutaways do is destroy any horror in the moment. We could've been put in that panicking woman's position as she blew precious air out and struggled to get free. We aren't.
It didn't have to be this way. As all the ads trumpet, Sanctum is executive-produced by James Cameron, whose The Abyss was the most intense and traumatizing underwater film since Das Boot. But he's not in the director's chair here. Someone named Alister Grierson is. This someone named Alister Grierson might do better with a different story (he's made one other feature, an Aussie war picture), or something that doesn't involve caves, diving, or 3D.
Ah, yes, the 3D. People see "James Cameron" and "3D" in the ads and they might think of Avatar, or they might think of his two 3D underwater documentaries. If he is lucky, they will not think of Sanctum. The movie makes very little effective use of 3D once it goes inside the cave, which happens about a reel in. There's no spatial or visual wonder in the cave, which in any case looks either computer-designed or carved out of styrofoam. We don't feel we're there, or anywhere in particular. The underwater photography flattens everything. The above-water acting flattens every character. One actress, Alice Parkinson as the aforementioned woman, sounds suspiciously dubbed. Richard Roxburgh, as the tough-as-nails leader of the expedition, is your standard-issue obsessive who's alienated his grown son, who also happens to be along for the journey.
The official plot motor, supposedly based on an actual experience that co-writer Andrew Wight had, traps five people in this massive cave after a storm blocks their way out. For a more visceral based-in-fact film pitting human against nature, I refer you to 127 Hours. That film, anchored by a fully committed James Franco performance, conveys the thrill and agony and triumph of putting one's body in the uncaring company of ancient rocks. For a more gripping James Cameron underwater adventure, I advise you to Netflix The Abyss. For a more terrifying cave movie, add The Descent to your queue.For wooden acting, stupid plot elements (like a climactic fight ending in one guy getting impaled on a stalagmite), and scene after scene in which you can't see and don't care what's going on, by all means waste some of your afternoon on "Sanctum."
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20718&reviewer=416
originally posted: 02/07/11 09:01:36