Sanctum has but one pertinent message to impart: don’t trust nature. Remain in the safety of your living rooms, where there are plenty of egress points, should the devilish forces of nature suddenly descend on you. At least if your living room begins to fill up with gallons of freezing floodwater, you can swim out of the front door or swim off through an open window.
Unfortunately, the hapless protagonists of Sanctum have no such luxury.
Directed by Alister Grierson, Sanctum is about a group of cave divers who are trapped when a freak storm blocks off their only known entrance. Facing the unhappy prospect of drowning in an atrium rapidly filling up with floodwater, the characters must find a way to safety through the caverns’ unexplored areas.
The cast, headed up by the impossibly stoic Frank (Richard Roxburgh), his whining, floppy-haired son, Josh (Home And Away alumni, Rhys Wakefield), and longstanding companion, George (Daniel Wyllie), are the least interesting thing about this $30 million action adventure, which was given an extra marketing boost in cinemas by the presence of James Cameron’s name at the top of the poster (he served as executive producer) and the inclusion of some potentially eye-popping 3D.
Viewed in flat, old-fashioned 2D, Jules O’Loughlin’s rather workmanlike cinematography is left to fend for itself. There are plenty of pleasant shots of light playing off cave walls or striking through hazy water, but there’s a distinct lack of poetry to Sanctum‘s direction.
Last year’s Buried demonstrated just how much texture and startling camerawork you can eke out of a confined space, and Sanctum undoubtedly needed some of that film’s visual flair. While the natural beauty of Sanctum‘s environments is often in evidence (though a fair percentage of the film was actually filmed on sound stages), the grit and claustrophobia of the characters’ situation isn’t particularly well communicated.
There are, however, one or two quite effective, tense moments (one of which is surprisingly gruesome), and the final stages of Sanctum, where the characters talk less and get on with their escape attempt, are relatively tense.
Sanctum is best approached as a slasher movie, in which Mother Nature herself is the crazed killer on the loose. Or it’s an Antipodean, adult version of The Goonies. Take your pick.
Sanctum would, in fact, be a complete hackneyed failure were it not for the film’s undoubted star, the menace that is Mother Nature. Stalking silently through the maze-like caves of Papua New Guinnea, she stalks her quarry one by one, causing untold psychological havoc in the process. As one character growls, “There’s no God down here!”
Neither is there a scriptwriter in the cave, if the woeful dialogue’s anything to go by. Frank barks things like, “You’re on my shit list.” There are the usual character arcs here, a father and son rebuilding their rocky relationship. Other characters are overcome by anxiety. Some friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and so on.
If you’re willing to overlook the dreadful dialogue and flimsy characters, though, Sanctum just about works as a disposable action adventure. At the very least, you can amuse yourself, safe in the sanctum of your living room, by guessing who nature’s going to pick off next.
Sanctum is, unusually, entirely upstaged by its extras. The making of feature is surprisingly detailed, and it’s remarkable just how much of the film was shot on sound stages. Workmanlike though the film’s photography and direction is, it at least succeeds in tricking the viewer (or me, at least) into thinking almost all of it was shot in an actual cave. In fairness, I’ve only ever been inside a real cave twice.
The best thing on the disc is the 1989 documentary, Nullabor Dreaming, producer Andrew Wight’s film that inspired the making of Sanctum. Like the square-jawed heroes of the movie, Wight and his fellow cave divers were trapped beneath Australia’s Nullarbor Plain when floodwater blocked off their entrance. It’s a tense story, and proof that fact really can be more compelling than fiction.