Billed as the first narrative feature out of the James Cameron camp since the groundbreaking “Avatar” comes “Sanctum” a spelunking adventure captured in native 3D. Unfortunately, the effects alone can’t overcome a clunky, overwrought storyline that delivers unpleasant rated “R” thrills.
“Sanctum” is loosely based on a true story. But where the real-life story served as an inspiration to many and spawned this big budgeted re-packaging of that tale, the screenplay created from it is less than inspirational. In fact, the movie really only serves as a cautionary note to anyone watching it: Avoid Caves! Never explored is why in the world anyone would want to crawl around in the dark depths of the earth. There is a thoughtful and introspective story that could have been told about the need and underlying reasons for further exploration of our world, but “Sanctum” doesn’t even try to give us that story. Instead this is a movie that revels in tight spaces for the purpose of making us uncomfortable for its entire running time. The result is a frustrating 109 minutes.
The plot is relatively simple and straight-forward. Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is a famous cave explorer who would rather live like a mole man than a regular human being. He drags his teen-aged son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), along for his adventures. Josh, like most rebellious teens, would rather do anything than crawl around in the muck of a cave. Frank’s explorations are funded by a billionaire businessman named Carl (Ioan Gruffud doing a variation of his Reed Richards from the “Fantastic Four” movies). And Carl’s new girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), pals along with the crew to provide the plot with a female character that tones down the largely macho driven narrative.
Of course, as you can tell from the trailer, the intrepid bunch of cavers and wannabes get trapped when their only exit collapses. This sets up a journey through the unexplored depths of an intricate and dangerous cave system in hopes of finding another way out. Sadly, many in the group die which is in stark contrast to the true story that inspired it. According to what I’ve read, the real story had the entire clan of explorers being rescued without any loss of life. I suppose the producers of “Sanctum” figured that a movie where no one dies wouldn’t be good for business. And let me warn you, they make up for that with a sizeable body count.
The 3D effects work, but I wanted to see more of them. In one scene, the characters enter what they describe as an enormous “cathedral” under the ground. And, yet, we really only see it once and very briefly. Where were all the beautiful wide angles so we could appreciate the great depth that the three dimensional effects can provide? Even though the effects are promoted as cutting edge, overall, the final delivery of them was a bit of a let down. “Sanctum” is not “Avatar” even though the same 3D technology may have been used to film both movies. And while the comparison of this much smaller film to “Avatar” might be unfair, the marketing campaign is quick to remind us of the connection. Therefore, the comparison is expected.
James Cameron’s iconic contribution to the modern era of filmmaking cannot be questioned. I was a huge fan of “Avatar,” a movie that took many years to bring to the screen. The hope was that after a long hiatus, the window for another Cameron offering would be much shorter. After all, the technology that he had long sought for the purpose of realizing his visions was no longer only imaginary. And so, it makes sense that while Cameron ramps up his “Avatar” sequel that his company would put to use that technology in lesser projects not directed by the big man himself. And “Sanctum” isn’t an awful way to toy around with the effects, but it’s a shame that the story couldn’t match the magic the cameras can create.