The unknown is scary for a lot of people (myself included), as I find even the smallest of prospects (i.e., the women’s restroom) to be vast and dangerous. However, some brave souls dream of exploring the unexplored. In fact, some make it their life’s work; one example being deep-sea divers, who find pleasure in discerning underwater seascapes. Of course, there’s a byproduct to everything and it just so happens that unpredictability is that of which accompanies the unfamiliar.
Unlike like most Jaws-sonian rip-offs, Alister Grierson’s (Kokoda) Sanctum separates itself from the vast majority of the sea-exploration schlock by focusing on misfortune rather than killer sharks and prehistoric mollusks. Based on co-writer Andrew Wright’s personal cave diving experiences (which ultimately led him to being trapped underground for two days before finally escaping), and rounded off by another freshman screenwriter, John Garvin, it stars Richard Roxburgh as Frank McGuire, a typical no nonsense master explorer, who for some reason allows his disillusioned son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), financing hot-shot Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), and Carl’s inexperienced lover, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), to accompany him on what he already knows is a treacherous journey (there is even a death right before their arrival).
Ironically, Frank is the most level-headed of the group when things hit the fan. This occurs when a seemingly mild storm suddenly becomes a tornado, sending a continuous fountain of water down the Esa-ala Caves. Unfortunately, communications are down and the team is a bit late on the memo that the cave will eventually flood. Even more unfortunate is the fact that their only exit collapses on them. Now the only chance to survive this never-ending stampede of bad-luck is to traverse the cave’s underwater labyrinth in hopes of reaching the ocean, though things never seem fine and dandy when you’re low on supplies and are about to trek towards a sector known only as “The Devil’s Restriction.”
Featuring an absolute lack of marine life, Sanctum makes up for it by jumping the shark one-too-many times, because although food and batteries are a scarce resource, random entrapments and epiphanies are not: Rocks dislocate without even touching them, equipment malfunctions randomly and divers suddenly panic — one even going mildly insane by the film’s meandering second-act. Still, Wright and Garvin show interest in setting up equilibrium in the amount of good and bad luck that the adrenaline junkies experience. If something substantially horrible happens to any one of the film’s protagonists, one can automatically assume that the rest will experience a small miracle in return. This sort of predictability is what ultimately destroys the production, although that isn’t exactly the film’s only damning element.
Superfluities are also abundant in Grierson’s latest and the overall cheapness of the product adds to the unsettlement. On top of that, though the screenwriters try to expand upon their characters, namely Frank and Josh, whose damaged father-son dynamic finds light in the darkness, the protagonists remain flat — perhaps that’s why there is somewhat of a barbaric thrill in seeing them drop like flies because of amateur mistakes. However, the hammy acting doesn’t help either. From the get-go the actor’s deliveries are atrocious, adding more pain to an already contrived script with their forced emotions, the most annoying being cheeriness, which the performers feel they must portray by screaming obnoxiously.
But nobody really noticed Sanctum for its stars or storyline, the real hook was the name, James Cameron, who smeared himself all over the film’s marketing campaign. What was the reason behind this shameless whoring? Sanctum was actually shot using Cameron’s custom 3-D cameras, and Grierson, an indie-director at the time, was hand-picked by James while Avatar was being shot. Surprisingly, the film fails even on that level; already dark environments are made even darker, and the added this technology does nothing but make patrons another five dollars poorer. That leaves me to believe that Cameron chose to represent this stinker only because it served as a chance to test his creation underwater.
The double-meaning in the film’s title is all that Sanctum has going on for it; at the midway point, Frank explains that he uses the cave as both a retreat from everyday life — that it is — and as a chapel, to worship what seems like an out-of-control ego. Of course this is more inspired than calling the film “Deep Sea” or something of the sort, however, none of the same workmanship is placed on the actual product, making it a poor, uninspired, and bland thriller that does nothing but prove that even with the best technology, a bit of talent is required to make it work. Grierson doesn’t have this talent.