A team of divers stuck in a deep cavern that is being flooded serves as the backdrop for a ham-fisted story of a father and son working out their relationship problems in Sanctum, an inartful and at times quite boring disaster movie.
So a bunch of people are exploring a cave. This cave is very deep and very mysterious and much of it is filled with water (the goal of the exploration is to find where the river running through the caverns connects with the sea). We have our young characters, our older seasoned characters, our science-y types — but a lot of them die almost immediately so let’s just focus on the main characters. Because escaping from a flooded maze isn’t drama enough, we have the story of Frank (Richard Roxburgh), a driven explorer, and his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), his whineypants son who’s all “I don’t want your life,” a la James Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues but without that high level of Van Der Beekian commitment to the character. They clash frequently because Frank is an angry jerk and Josh is more of a chillaxer. Also, there is Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), a rich guy funding the exploration project because blah blah blah look out! this cave is being flooded by exposition. He has a girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), whose sole purpose as a character is to be hilariously bad at deep cave exploration in general and scuba diving in particular. Carl and Frank clash because Frank can’t get along with anybody and because it’s handy, storywise, toward the end of the movie.
So, to set this up, these people are at the bottom of a deep deep cave, in which, if you keep going down, you can find vast caverns filled with water but also small spaces with air and maybe a way to get to the ocean. And then it starts to rain. Rain comes down, cave fills up, attractive people who are absolutely indistinguishable from each other in scuba gear start to die. And every now and then we pause for some “Dad, how can you be this way” and “son, you have to take responsibility.” Were the other characters more developed, they’d likely show some interest in drowning this duo.
I think it’s because of the “produced by James Cameron” that you don’t except cheap slasher movie acting but that indeed is what you get. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments when the characters’ inability to resemble regular humans actually distracts you from the showy effects.
For all that the movie has been hyping its James Cameron connection, Sanctum’s use of 3-D actually made me appreciate all the things Avatar got right — like using its 3-D to show us something new and giving us the ability to marvel at it. As with this summer’s Piranha 3D, Sanctum is exceptionally dark. People swim single file through tight, low-lit caves — not only is this boring to watch in 2-D, it is absolutely a waste of 3-D. And this is one of those most annoying 3-D movies where the slightest tilt of the head causes everything to go out of focus. (Which, frankly, was fine sometimes. I could trick myself into believing different, less wooden actors were on the screen.)
The whole point, I would imagine, of making a disaster-under-water movie and specifically making it in 3-D would be to show us exciting underwater things — alien-looking worlds and maybe strange creatures. We get none of that. Instead it’s a slow slog through caves that remind me of the entryway for some amusement park ride — like we’re waiting in line for “Dungeons of the Deep” and occasionally some animatronic people in wet suits come out to spot some line of robotic dialogue.
Though it’s likely the robots would have sounded more natural.
Rated R for language, some violence and disturbing images. Directed by Alister Grierson and written by John Garvin and Andrew Wight, Sanctum is an hour and 43 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.