“Inspired by true events.” Can we ever believe it? Ever since the Coen’s used that tag in their completely fictional Fargo (1996) it has become somewhat harder to believe – and, of course, there is always some kind of dramatic, or artistic, licence with any story. Tonight’s feature has the same tag and actually did take its inspiration from real life events, however the outcome is clearly as fictitious as the aforementioned Fargo. Also the film is being marketed with the name ‘James Cameron’ as the main selling point, and clearly, from the finished result, his stamp is as much over it as Spielberg’s is on Poltergeist (1982) – but, unfortunately that is not a compliment. So let’s take a dive into tonight’s feature; Sanctum 3D.
Carl Hurley is a self made billionaire, with more money than sense for someone of his (relatively) young years, and he uses that money for ‘extreme’ sports, be that mountaineering or cave diving, the latter of which is his latest passion. Using his near unlimited finance he sets up an expedition to dive the hitherto unexplored region of the Esa'ala Cave, an underwater cave in Papua New Guinea, with the express intent of seeing something that no one has ever seen, and indeed proving the existence of an underground river system that eventually leads to the sea. Since money is no object he hires the very best team, headed up by Frank McGuire, a cave diving expert unmatched in his expertise, along with Frank’s (near estranged) son, Josh, and other team members George, Judes and Luko amongst others. Also along for the ride is Victoria, Carl’s girlfriend of the moment, and someone he met on a mountaineering expedition. Things immediately start to take a bad turn when approaching the cave, equipment is being hoisted out due to the imminent arrival of a huge storm that threatens to flood the cave system. Thinking they still have two days and with Carl’s impetuous nature the crew descend into the caves to begin their exploration. Of course, things don’t go quite according to plan (when do they ever in disaster movies), the storm advances and everyone gets trapped underground with the only escape being further into the unexplored depths ....
When I first saw the advertising for this film, with Cameron’s name emblazoned all over it, I thought, what with The Abyss in mind, that Sanctum was an underground/water monster movie, perhaps along the lines of an underwater Descent. However, that is absolutely not true, Sanctum is about a bunch of skilled cave divers that are trapped due to unforeseen circumstances, and it’s their fight for survival in an inhospitable environment where the greatest danger is, in fact, themselves. That sentence makes the film sound quite compelling, but actually, that too is a lie; for whilst the idea is engaging, the execution is rather lacking and clichéd, resulting is a lacklustre engagement with the peril of the characters.
Ioan Gruffudd does his best Reed Richards impersonation as the billionaire Carl, the part requires very little from him other than to spar with Frank for ‘control’. This element should have been one of the most exciting areas to explore, the dynamic between the self made man, billionaire, resolute and determined against that of a cave diver who’s used to making life or death decisions and whose heart is always that of the team. But somehow Gruffudd just comes off as the spoilt brat and whilst I liked his ultimate character trait, which worked within the confines of the fiction, it does fail to hold up to even the minutest scrutiny when logic is applied. Contrast this with that of Richard Roxburgh who plays Frank, the pragmatic survivalist of the cave divers, whose gruff exterior matches his equally gruff heart, born of hardship and an unnerving affinity with caving – he is able to feel the cave to navigate through it. Such affinity has seen his marriage fail, his son nearly estranged, but also seen him as the very best of the best in his chosen field. Always able to make the hard decisions, be that for himself, or more familiarly for the team, sacrifice one to keep many safe is a clear epitaph, even if this puts him at odds everyone else. When sparring with Carl, Frank always comes out on top, even if, on the face of it, it looks like he’s lost, but when the situation calls for a leader, all eyes always turn to Frank, and Roxburgh rises to that challenge, imbuing the character with an inner strength that enables you to feel for the hard decisions he has to make, even if you don’t really warm to him due to his gruff nature. Of all the characters in the film, Frank is the one you root for, even if it is painfully obvious who is getting out alive, right from the very beginning.
A large portion of the film is devoted to the reconciliation of Frank and Josh. Josh, played by Rhys Wakefield, is a passionate young man, still smarting from his near estrangement from his father, who he sees as little more than a bully and who he has never received the nurturing he so craved as a child, that now presents itself as hurt and dismissal; the pair constantly argue about Frank’s methods and choices, but as the pair descend further into the cave each gain a mutual respect for each other’s point of view and, it seems, find that bond so lacking in Josh’s early ears – of course all this is to set up the inevitable tragedy which you can see a mile away, and it’s typically Cameron in its execution.
The other team members, George, Judes and Luko, as well as girlfriend Victoria, are played by Dan Wyllie, Allison Cratchley, Cramer Cain and Alice Parkinson respectively all of whom play the cannon fodder with reasonable success, each one’s grizzly ending supposed to serve up the horror of the situation but ultimately turning into a cliché fest; with Victoria’s being of particular delight to horror fans.
And, perhaps, this is the biggest problem with the entire production; the laudable intentions of exploring emotions of characters in extreme circumstances, turns itself into a death by numbers situation and in doing so jettisons all ‘reality’ in an attempt to be dramatic; this has the effect of making the film almost laughable or groan inducing, depending on your particular bend for this type of genre – made all the worse for Cameron’s sappy hand that has the big build up to a tragic ending that has more cheese than a cheese factory that has been unable to sell any cheese due to the cheesyness of its cheese.
However, one thing is true; this is an incredible looking film. Production designer Nicholas McCallum, art director Jenny O'Connell and cinematographer, and friend of Cameron’s, Jules O'Loughlin combine to bring the most realistic looking cave diving sets ever, this, coupled with the 3D filming helps to create a world of constricting rocks, underwater nightmares and nausea inducing falls. My only complaint the quality of the high definition shows up the obvious concrete in their construction, but that might just be me ...
Sometimes style over substance can create a worthwhile film (Tron: Legacy?) but when something is purporting itself to be ‘true’ there needs to be an investment into the characters and their plight; Sanctum had the opportunity to carry this off very well, a character study in extreme situations, but once it took the route of ‘see which one gets out alive’ it became a nonsense, add to that the amount of cheese and clichés and you have either a typical Cameron movie or something to avoid altogether, some might say both. Personally I found it easy watching, being neither invested nor bothered by the nonsense, because the picture, in its 3D guise, was so sensational – had I seen it in 2D, I think I would have dismissed it. Take from that what you will.