Directed By: Alister Grierson
Starring: Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wyllie, Christopher Baker, Nicole Downs, Allison Cratchley, Cramer Cain
Sanctum may want to be an adventure drama, but you’ve actually got to have a viable blend of action and emotion to validate that categorization. Director Alister Grierson certainly tries to achieve that denomination, but sadly, succeeds in just one respect and fails big time in the other. Which one’s the winner? Here’s a hint; if Sanctum were a silent film, it’d be quite good.
Deep inside the Esa’ala Caves in the South Pacific is a channel of tunnels that have yet to be explored. Seasoned diver, Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), and his reluctant son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), are in the midst of a mission to uncover the passageways that lead from the cave’s entrance to the open sea. The mission’s financial backer, Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), has an adventurous side as well, so decides to take his new girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), down below to check out the progress. Unfortunately, his timing is a bit off and shortly after arriving, a furious storm bears down on the region, trapping the group below.
With the only known exit blocked, they’re forced to expedite the mission and locate the exit to the sea as fast as possible; otherwise, they could lose their lives to anything from decompression sickness to hypothermia or to sheer panic.
Sanctum is a bit of a rollercoaster in terms of the quality of work. Let’s start with the good. With James Cameron as the producer, the filmmakers had access to his coveted 3D photography and the results are impressive. Unlike the majority of 3D films we’ve seen, most of which use the post-conversion method, with Sanctum, you actually get your money’s worth. Everything from the action to the quieter moments are in 3D and thanks to the rich and cavernous setting, the depth is ever present. The one drawback is that Sanctum still fails to get the technology over the gimmick hurdle. As wild as it is to see Gruffudd’s character leap off a cliff and down into a seemingly bottomless pit in 3D, it’s still only a visual spectacle; it does nothing to enhance the story.
Another plus for Sanctum is the story. The fact that it’s inspired by the true experience of writer Andrew Wight is a major asset and Grierson knows it, planting a title card right at the beginning of the film announcing its real roots. But, of course, the effects of the tale’s true background doesn’t end there. As the characters venture deeper and deeper into this labyrinth of caves, you can practically feel their pain and you can’t help but to recall that someone out there really did go through this.
Grierson and his cinematographer, Jules O’Loughlin, really drive this point home with the camerawork. Particularly during the opening, when our leads are still above ground, everything is beautifully framed and the camera movements are quite fluid, always motivated by character movement. Then, once we’re down below, the top priority is to make the audience feel as claustrophobic and trapped as the characters and it works. You feel what these divers feel and that makes the situation all the more powerful. However, trouble comes when you look at the specifics of the film and not the broader story.
First off, the dialogue is absolutely atrocious. The players are either saying something painfully obvious or cliché. Roxburgh’s lines are the worst of all with just about every single one shoving it in the audience’s faces that he’s the hardened leader who has no problem being heartless for the sake of what’s best for the majority of the group. In his darkest moments we get lines like, “There’s no god down here,” and even when he lightens up a bit, it’s still uninspiring garbage like, “You never give up.” Roxburgh may get the worst of them all, but no star escapes the wrath of awful dialogue in this film; some just manage to work with it.
Parkinson, Wakefield and Dan Wyllie as Frank’s trusty sidekick, George, are the best of the bunch. Again, they don’t have anything interesting to say, but their performances are convincing enough that you’re at least concerned for their safety. Through honest acting, we actually get a peek inside these individuals’ minds and begin to feel as though we know them. Then, whether they’re in a situation during which their lives are seriously at risk or at least making an attempt at showing some dramatic emotion, we care.
On the other hand, Roxburgh and Gruffudd fail all around. In Roxburgh’s case, the role of Frank really left him with no choice. He was assigned a character we’ve seen time and time again and his mouth is packed with recycled discourse, but Gruffudd had some room to breathe; he just failed miserably trying to work with it. There’s really no other way to put this; the guy is a terrible actor. It generally feels as though he’s merely reciting his lines, he has zero chemistry with the cast, even his on-screen girlfriend and his performance is packed with so many bizarre facial expressions and so much overacting, you’re laughing at him most of the time.
Specific problems aside, broadly, Sanctum is a worthwhile experience. The music is quite intrusive often preempting emotion and some of those emotions are plain old silly, but as an action film, it certainly entertains. It boasts a hefty handful of impressively tense moments and a few peaks of suspense that will undoubtedly make you shudder if not close your eyes entirely.
By Perri Nemiroff