Sanctum 3D review

James Cameron oversees Sanctum 3D, a film that offers a stark warning as to why you shouldn't go diving in caves. But is it any good?

While watching Australian cave-thriller, Sanctum, I could tell that writing about it was going to be a bit of a tricky task. You see, I’m aware of my ethical and professional obligation to provide an objective review both to Den Of Geek and, of course, to you, the readers.

On the other hand, I’m also aware that after the multi-billion dollar success of Avatar, Sanctum executive producer, James Cameron, has the kind of money and power that, were I to say something he didn’t like, he could have me quickly and brutally killed within minutes, possibly at the hands of a giant forklift robot operated by the man himself.

So, with that in mind, I’m now going to say some nice things about Sanctum.

The 3D effects are okay. And there is a surprisingly nasty bit of gore about an hour in that is quite good.

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Oh, I haven’t done a synopsis yet. That’s, at the very least, going to be neutral.

A group of cave divers, led by the irascible Frank (Richard Roxburgh), attempt to infiltrate the world’s oldest, deepest and most mysterious cave system. His crack team includes an American playboy financier and his girlfriend, and Frank’s 17-year-old son, Josh, whose concentration and devotion to his dive team duties is tempered by his abundance of daddy issues. When exploring the caves, an exit collapses, and the team are forced into a fight for survival.

So, we’re all happy to end the review here, right?

No? It’s just that if I’m forced to write any more, I’d almost certainly have to mention the elephant in the room. Namely, that Sanctum is one of the single most boring films I’ve seen in recent times, a movie so unrelentingly lifeless and dull that at one point I was genuinely concerned that it would cause my glazed and tired eyes to cross permanently, therefore putting the film back into 2D and negating its only true selling point. 

And I don’t really want to bring that up, as it’ll only end up with someone being sent back in time to kill me before I write my review. It’s for this reason that I also wouldn’t want to talk about the abysmal script that does about as poor a job of structuring, pacing and setting up a story as you could expect from a major film.

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For example, Sanctum‘s idea of setting up the tense, angst-y relationship between Frank and his son Josh, is to treat us in the opening scenes to at least nine different characters approaching Josh and saying, “Your dad’s really mad at you, you know. He’s really, really mad,” before cutting to Frank, who is being earnestly told by another character, “You shouldn’t get so mad at Josh. He’s a good kid!” This exchange is then repeated ad nauseam for thirty excruciatingly dull minutes, with almost nothing else of note happening on screen, before we’re  launched into the ‘meat’ of the film, where our heroes are suddenly in peril and we’re genuinely expected  to care about what happens to them.

I, for one, would like to state on the record that I definitely did not find this lame attempt at character development incredibly inept, half-arsed and frustrating. Instead, it was a refreshing change from most other films, which tend to provide the audience with at least one memorable or interesting character to latch onto, instead of populating the whole cast exclusively with charisma-free, two-dimensional (the irony!) schmucks that are so forgettable that you are forced to impose names and personalities on them yourself in a last-ditch attempt to stay awake, like Robert Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

(See if you can spot Crocodile Sean Pertwee, yuppie McNulty from The Wire and my personal favourite, gravely constipated Chesney Hawkes.)

Needless to say, I won’t be talking about the dialogue in this entirely positive, non-critical review of Sanctum, and how it is hackneyed, banal and groan-worthy in the extreme. I know that Mr Cameron isn’t shy of filling his own scripts with some clunkers, but compared to some of the rubbish the poor actors in Sanctum are forced to speak, the scripts of Titanic and Avatar look like David Mamet or something.

One odd thing about Sanctum that I definitely can’t mention is how, despite Mr Cameron’s position as executive producer (as the marketing materials are very keen to make us aware of), the film could not be more at odds with his long standing and admirable tendency to fill his movies with strong-willed, powerful women of action.

There’s an ugly streak of misogyny running through Sanctum, as all (well, both) of the women are either incompetent, flighty, vain or self-obsessed. Oh, and  in constant need of being rescued by the physically and mentally superior male characters. It certainly leaves a bit of a nasty taste in the mouth, and in 2011, it’s sad to see such negative, sweeping generalisations still being made about people. Still, I guess that’s Australians for you (*).

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I’m obviously not going to be talking about what an ugly spectacle Sanctum is purely on an aesthetic level, with its never-changing palette of muddy greys and browns. There’s a reason why there aren’t many films set exclusively in caves. It’s because caves are basically just rocks and water, which are horrible things to look at for hours on end, regardless of how many dimensions you film them in.

One aspect of Sanctum that I can talk about, as it is a genuinely impressive achievement, is how it is a film set almost exclusively in a cave that manages to be entirely devoid of any sense of claustrophobia. There are a couple of scenes that show characters (both women, naturally) struggling for minutes as they pitifully try and force their way through ‘gaps’ you could practically drive a bus through. I know that it must be hard enough to get the 3D cameras underwater, let alone into cave crevices, but it’s embarrassing how little tension and suspense the filmmakers manage to generate over the course of the film.

While I’m clearly an exception, I know that there are potentially a lot of reviewers out there who might speculate Sanctum is a film that has been primarily produced to demonstrate that a (relatively) low budget film can be produced using the impressive 3D technology that Mr Cameron pioneered with Avatar. Which essentially makes Sanctum a 90 minute technical test reel, only one that we have to stump up cash to go and see.

Some might argue that this film will set a dangerous precedent if it makes a lot of money (which it probably will, due to the extra revenue that comes in from the higher price of tickets for 3D films), demonstrating that people will literally watch anything if it’s marketed heavily enough and the 3D tech is up to scratch.

Some might say that attempting to shamelessly piggyback off of the success of Avatar with such a joyless, lifeless, cynical film probably isn’t the best use of Mr Cameron’s time, money and resources at the moment. 

But I wouldn’t say that, obviously. I liked it.

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(*) A joke, before anyone writes in to complain!

Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic, or for more babble check out his blog here.

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1 out of 5