'Sanctum' lacks the depth of the caves its about


February 07, 2011|By BOB GARVER
  • In this film publicity image released by Universal Pictures, Rhys Wakefield, left, and Richard Roxburgh are shown in a scene from "Sanctum."
Universal Pictures

The ads for "Sanctum" draw immediate attention to James Cameron's producing credit.

Because audiences associate Cameron with stunning visuals, it's no wonder that the film makes a number of unnecessary attempts to look beautiful. 

 At the opening there's a big majestic shot of the opening to the cave where the movie takes place. Almost all the underwater shots are bathed in a warm bluish-green hue. Muscular bodies glisten with occasional beads of perspiration. 

"Sanctum" is a movie that takes place in a cave, most of it in the midst and aftermath of a devastating storm. I can accept the gorgeous shots of the mouth of the cave in broad daylight at the beginning, and maybe I can buy some of the cave's early beauty because the film mentions that the team has a cave-load of expensive equipment, which I assume includes several lights.  But once the storm hits and the characters are supposed to be down to the lights on their helmets, the cave still looks like it's lit for a movie set.

The well-lit cave isn't the only element whose "beautiful" appearance is a distraction. One time at camp I went caving for a few hours. Mere minutes into the unpleasant experience (slightly more unpleasant than watching "Sanctum"), every inch of me was completely caked in cave mud. The characters in the movie should be filthy even before they are enveloped by the storm, any cleanliness afterward is completely unacceptable. But no, they still all fit Hollywood's definition of "ruggedly handsome."

The story surrounds a group of cave explorers. Grizzled veteran Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is their leader, being the most experienced and having passion for nothing (and no one) else.

Rich jerk Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) has paid everyone else to do the menial task of clearing a path through most of the cave so he can jump in at the last minute and "discover" the parts they haven't touched yet. 

Carl's spoiled girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) is along so he'll have someone to listen when he says, "See that — we're the first people in history to see that."

Frank's son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), is in the cave for reasons that were never clear to me. All he ever talks about is how much he hates his dad, how much he hates caves, and how much he hates that his dad chose caves over him. There are four or five other members of Frank's crew, but .... we don't get too attached to them. 

The team gets trapped in the cave when the storm hits, their exit strategy falls through, the chamber that they're in starts to flood, and they have to move forward into uncharted territory if they ever want to get out.

I guess the film qualifies as a disaster movie because of the storm, but structurally it more closely follows that of a slasher movie. The characters get picked off one by one, just by their environment instead of a serial killer. Another similarity with the slasher genre was that I wanted to yell advice to the characters. Specifically, "Don't fiddle with your air tube when it's your only source of oxygen!"

"Sanctum" is based on a true story, so I knew that someone had to make it out alive to tell the story and get a movie deal. Of course, if I were watching real people I would be rooting for them to all make it out of the cave safe and sound.

But these are movie characters, and I kept having to recalculate which ones were the most likeable (and later least unlikeable) so I could root for them. Nobody initially higher than third from the bottom made it out. I don't find it hard to believe that the characters in "Sanctum" might not have been likeable in reality, especially under such dire circumstances. I do find it hard to believe that they naturally spoke like bad actors and weren't covered in mud.

One star out of five.

"Sanctum" is rated R for language, some violence, and disturbing images.  Its running time is 118 minutes. 

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