What do you call a bunch of Australians tossed down a hole? A good start. I kid of course – “a mediocre movie” is more like it. And that’s precisely what you get with Alister Grierson’s Sanctum a 3D thriller in which a crew of cave divers struggle to survive after a monsoon-driven flood pins them thousands of feet underground.
Sanctum is set in Papua New Guinea but was mostly shot in the sprawling caves of South Australia. The cast is dominated by local actors many of whom will prove unrecognizable to moviegoers residing above the equator – which frankly isn’t all that much of a hindrance since the lot of them will be killed off long before the closing credits roll.
The cast’s lone non-Aussie – and the film’s most familiar face – is Welshman Ioan Gruffudd who plays Carl a gratingly cocky American industrialist whose wealth funds the whole caving (the word “spelunking” is never used much to my chagrin) expedition and whose extreme-tourist bent compels him to come along for the ride. He also brings his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) whose strong-mindedness you just know is going to become a liability when the sh*t hits the fan.
The sh*t in the case of Sanctum is an apocalyptic storm that arrives days before it’s supposed to triggering an avalanche of boulders that effectively seals off all possible exits. With the water level rising and a near-zero chance of rescue the group’s hardened no-nonsense leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh) decrees that their best hope of survival lies in finding an alternate means of escape via an unexplored stretch of tunnels thought to lead to the ocean.
The situation grows gradually more desperate and characters succumb one by one to the hazards of the deep in fairly predictable disaster-flick order. (The aging female is first to go followed by the ethnic guy etc.) Sanctum cycles through a series of grisly fatalities – including one delightful bit in which a shock of hair caught in a climbing apparatus results in an impromptu scalping – until finally the last man standing is Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) a moody 17-year-old who has heretofore spent most of the film acting out with childish spite toward his neglectful dad. Out of supplies exhausted but with his exquisite surfer-dude haircut thankfully still intact Josh must complete the remainder of the harrowing journey alone.
Director Grierson packs Sanctum with some truly breathtaking visuals. The underwater cinematography shot with 3D cameras Grierson spent six-plus years developing is particularly stunning. But the film’s script clearly didn’t receive as much care and attention as its cameras. The action is occasionally gripping but the story lacks suspense and its tone largely fails to evoke the gnawing claustrophobia that presumably festers in such a dark musty subterranean labyrinth. Moreover it’s littered with truly execrable dialogue made worse by ADR that sounds as if it were recorded in a cozy basement studio.
Executive producer James Cameron is featured prominently in Sanctum’s advertising campaign but the film itself bears scant evidence of his involvement save perhaps for the splendid underwater scenes. I half-suspect he viewed the project as a tool to develop and test his 3D technology in preparation for his amphibious Avatar sequel. He certainly didn’t use it to brush up on his storytelling skills.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.