James Cameron neither wrote nor directed SANCTUM, but his fingerprints as the executive producer of same are all over it. Visually, it’s an exhilarating experience. As for the storytelling, the word lugubrious comes to mind. The writing is stiff and ridden with clichés, with cheese-ish motifs overwhelmed by swelling, overwrought music cues that forge straight ahead and settle firmly into the land of cheese itself.
Based, as they say, on actual events, the film follows a mixed-bag of archetypes as they battle their way out of an underground and mostly submerged cave system in Papua New Guinea. There are Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and Josh (Rhys Wakefield) the father and son at odds with one another, the former, the greatest explorer of our time, the latter a teenager with a mediums-sized chip on his shoulder about not living up to daddy’s expectations, and a bigger one about not having been asked if he would like to take part in this expedition. There is the rich guy, Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), an adrenaline junkie who is funding the expedition. He’s brought along his mountain-climbing girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson). They are both clueless, particularly when things go wrong and they decide not to take Frank’s advice about anything. There are also an assortment of trusty team members who have been with Frank for years, and whose main job is to tell Josh what a great guy his dad is. They are also there to provide the Cameron-style of exposition, which involves reciting long bits of salient information about the dangers of the bends, the quickest way to die when mis-using the diving equipment, and so forth, all of which will come in handy as everything set forth in such detail comes to pass. If it weren’t such a good-looking film, despite the claustrophobia quotient, there would really be no reason to stay for the entire two hours or so of running time. The blueprint of the plot points is laid out with great detail, not unlike the computer graphics, another Cameron trademark, that are played for Victoria when she arrives at base camp. It shows the depths and dangers that our band of adventurers will shortly be called upon to traverse.
Things begin to go badly almost from the first, with a tight squeeze into unexplored underwater country, an accidental death, and the guilt trip laid by father and son on one another. There’s also that cyclone that will cause flooding of those parts of the cave that aren’t yet underwater, including the base camp with all the whiz-bang hi-tech electronics. Those who wait, for one reason or another, to climb out, or haven’t drowned right away, are trapped by a boulder lodged firmly in the only means of egress. The only way out is through the mostly underwater twists, turns, and unexplored regions of the cave system.
Such situations bring out the best and worst in people, hence the high drama. SANCTUM, overwritten and flabby in the script area, disappoints, though Roxburgh is blessedly arresting as the stoic explorer saddled with an assortment of people depending on him for their lives and, one way or another, giving him nothing but grief for his efforts. Wakefield, as a toothsome bit of eye candy also distinguishes himself, rising above the staleness of his character with a quiet bravado. Parkinson has the thankless task of being the designated hysteric, and Gruffudd, an actor of not inconsiderable power when allowed, is by turns smarmy and bug-eyed nuts.
It’s a waste of some of the best use of 3-D to date. The vertiginous drops from steep precipices, the disorienting weightlessness of caverns filled with crystal clear water are breathtaking, setting a primal mood of an environment beautiful, lethal, and completely indifferent to the people traversing it. It’s almost worth sitting through the dreck to experience it. But only almost.
SANCTUM is a schmaltz-fest extraordinaire, oozing with sentiment instead of suspense, and purple-tinged melodrama instead understatement that would have made much more of an impact. Or any impact.