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Review: Sanctum

By  · Published on February 5th, 2011

From this day forward, when you think of large, dark, smelly holes that entice with both their mystery and their danger, you will think of James Cameron’s Sanctum.

That’s the ill-advised hope anyway on behalf of Cameron and friends as they toss what amounts to a glorified 3D tech demo onto thousands of movie screens across the country. He didn’t direct this film, but his Executive Producer stamp is all over it (as the marketing is happy to remind you). It’s playing under the guise of being an action/adventure, and while there are some tense scenes scattered throughout it’s mostly a beautiful-looking misfire populated by characters you won’t give two shits about speaking dialogue that would embarrass even Cameron himself.

Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) has just arrived in Papua New Guinea with his his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) to survey the progress of an epic exploration of the Esa-ala cave system. The belief is that the tunnels below eventually wind their way to the ocean, and Carl wants to be the one who finds that link. His team consists of a ragtag bunch of cardboard cutouts including Frank (Richard Roxburgh), the world’s foremost spelunker and Worst Dad Of the Year winner, Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who doesn’t even want to be there anyway harrumph, Crazy George (Dan Wyllie) who’s medically forbidden from diving (?), and a handful of others who won’t be around long enough for us to care. Brief introductions give way as a surface storm sweeps in and floods the cave. The rushing water cuts off the route to the surface and forces those below to find another exit. They’ll have to go down if they want to survive…

Not that the audience will find themselves interested or concerned for any of the players here as the acting on display is often just as flat and ridiculous as the characters’ actions and dialogue. “Life is not a dress rehearsal!” spouts one, “This cave isn’t gonna beat me!” spurts another, and “You killed him you bastard!” screams a third. And just wait until the heartfelt speech between father and son that begins with “Cars, cds, mortgages…” Suspense works best when an audience cares about the characters in danger. There’s no risk of that happening here.

If Gruffudd is the worst (he is) then the best, strictly by comparison, are the father and son duo. The two carry what passes for dramatic interludes between the action as they remind us every ten minutes that their relationship is crap due to Frank’s inability to choose family over adventure. Roxburgh and Wakefield do their best with what they have and come across as really good community theater stand-ins for Stellan Skarsgard and Ryan Gosling, respectively.

But if one lesson is to be learned from these characters and their experience it has nothing to do with hubris, ego, or a lack of familial skills. No, the main lesson here is that women do not belong in caves. There are three female characters, and while one up and disappears completely around the halfway mark the remaining two behave in consistently idiotic fashion that endangers not only themselves but repeatedly risks the lives of the rest of the team. I’m talking spectacularly stupid.


For as bad as the script and acting are, the visuals are actually pretty goddamn impressive at times. The helicopter shots of the cave entrance are dizzying and occasionally jaw-dropping, and much of the interior work is almost as impressive. Large caverns lit with the blue tint of the water below, tightly cramped crawlspaces, and Parkinson’s underwear-clad body all succeed to take the mind away from the poorly written and performed words spilling out of the characters’ mouths like so much pablum.

There are two “enhancements” made to the visuals with varying effect. On the plus side, the film is shot in 3D and actually manages to feel immersive and tangible. There are relatively few shots that feel like gimmicks and the effect fades out of mind more often than not, but it’s used well in enough of the scenes to mark it as 3D done right. Less successful are a handful of CGI scenes meant to impress in their scale but instead stand out as cartoonish when compared to the honest beauty of the real scenery.

Sanctum isn’t what anyone would call a good movie, but it has a couple things going for it. Namely the visuals. Okay, so it has one thing going for it. If 3D makes you tingle down there or you really feel compelled to put money in Cameron’s pockets then by all means go see the movie. But if neither of those apply to you then I’d recommend you spend the afternoon at your nearest national park instead.

The Upside: Some truly impressive and awe-inspiring visuals; 3D is okay

The Downside: Every time the characters speak a baby bat drowns in guano; female characters truly get the shaft; CGI interrupts the beauty and impressiveness of the natural wonders

On the Side: Everyone survived the “true story” that inspired Sanctum.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.