I am not a big fan of 3D. I think it rarely adds any value to a movie going experience and in most cases, takes away from it as the colours get dim and the movies look less than spectacular. Further, it is easy to label a small film starring little known actors as a Steven Spielberg or James Cameron “Production” to fetch a respectable opening. However, no such film to my knowledge has ever managed to provide the same kind of quality entertainment that is usually associated with these names. Therefore, I had more than a few reservations about Sanctum walking into the cinema hall. Thankfully, however, the film manages to be surprisingly entertaining, in 3D even, if one can get past the human stick figures and their mundane, even laughable, communication.
Sanctum is about a bunch of divers who are exploring an underwater cave system in Papua New Guinea, one of the last (and largest) remaining unexplored in the world. We meet the tough lead diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh), his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), the smarmy financier and adventurer Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), his mountaineering fiancé Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and their band of merry men. An unexpectedly early storm starts flooding the cave thereby cutting off their exit route, forcing them to do deeper and deeper into the cave to find an alternate exit.
The first thing that strikes you about the film is the photography. To put it simply, it is breathtaking. The production quality is high and the underwater sequences are exquisitely shot. The quality of the 3D is surprisingly good, though not perfect, given the dark and grim colour palette of the film. There are a few times when one is clueless as to what is going on as the actors are too busy trying to burst out of the screen than be clear about their movements. However, thankfully, these moments are outnumbered by several others where one is awestruck by the visual beauty of the film. Another factor that deserves special mention is the original score by David Hirschfelder (a popular Australian composer with several major films to his credit) which is tense, exotic, adventurous and melancholic in equal measure.
The story and screenplay, by themselves, are fairly weak. The friction between Frank and Josh is routine. Carl is smug and charming, but once again, nothing that we’ve not seen in several films before. The stock characters are on a strictly need to use basis. The dialogues are laughably bad at places, so much so, that you are left wondering whether the screenwriters confused “men in cave” with “cavemen” and chose to accordingly write their dialogues in Troll instead. In terms of performance, the actors don’t even try to act particularly well although Rhys Wakefield (The Black Balloon) shows some promise and would be interesting to see in the hands of a tougher director.
However, what it lacks in human drama, Sanctum largely makes up for in action pieces and thrills. Director Alister Grierson captures the grimness and claustrophobia of the caves perfectly and almost consistently delivers white-knuckle, intense moments that keep the viewer involved throughout.Moreover, he does so without resorting to cheap thrills like throwing in mean fish, excessive gore, nudity or other plot devices for tension. One can see the influence of Cameron and references to his own films in a few sequences. However, this is certainly more out of reverence than imitation. He seems most comfortable when he is busy showcasing the beautiful and terrible sides of nature’s fury and weakest when he is asking us to invest in the human characters.
Overall, Santum is not recommended to people with severe claustrophobia or aquaphobia; people who get off on intellectual gobbledygook alone or those that are put off by intense/action films. For the rest of you out there, Sanctum is an entertaining, thrilling, though largely generic, entry into the man versus nature genre. If you can look past the feeble humans and just enjoy the fierceness of nature, this is well worth the price of admission.