While watching Sanctum, the James Cameron-produced, Alister Grierson-directed adventure-thriller about underwater cave exploration, last week, a lot of thoughts ran through my mind (several relating to the 3D), but only one stuck: Why do the pros always have to die? Don’t worry, me simply raising that question isn’t exactly a Sanctum spoiler. The movie is, after all, about a group of professional cave divers trapped in a life-or-death scenario. If someone dies, they’re simply bound to be the pro.
That said, I do have one very specific complaint about the film’s script and it is spoilertastic, so if you don’t want to have certain events in Sanctum spoiled for you, you may want to skip this portion of the post. Onto the spoilers!
If you’re still with me, I can only assume it’s because you’ve already seen Sanctum and know how it ends. If you haven’t and just don’t care, here’s a recap: Josh (Rhys Wakefield) the young, irresponsible son of the world’s greatest cave diver, Frank (Richard Roxburh), survives while everyone else on the expedition dies. On the surface, I don’t have a particular problem with this because his father the pro is only taken out of the equation when he has to fight a fellow diver suffering from a bout of cave madness and punctures his lung with a stalagmite in the process. Frank isn’t beaten by the cave, he’s beaten by a raving coward. That’s fine, I can live with that, but just think of the opportunity screenwriters John Garvin and Andrew Wight missed by killing him off.
The only major source of character conflict in the movie is the strained relationship between Frank and Josh. Frank wants his son to have the same passion for cave exploring that he’s had all his life; Josh wants to be his own man and instead be a rock climber. It’s classic “Daddy was a fireman, so I’ll be a cop” territory, but what elevates this scenario in Sanctum is the belabored fact that Frank isn’t just a normal cave explorer; he’s the most knowledgeable, experienced explorer in the world. His expeditions are the stuff of living legends and his life is the envy of billionaires.
So, naturally, he dies in the caves, though not before his son can have a change of heart and realize that his father wasn’t a bad guy. He may have been an emotionally unavailable, absentee father, but that was only because Frank had spent his entire life watching friends die from making mistakes that he never would. It all makes for a touching death, but does it pay off? Does it make Sanctum in any way unique? No.
What would have made Sanctum truly unique is if it had the balls to kill everyone else off and have Frank survive yet another harrowing adventure. Imagine how much more it would have paid off emotionally had the order of life been slapped in the face. Instead of having the vanilla, undeserving kid finally come of age, why not puncture his cocky lung with the stalagmite? Let the already hardened father give his son a watery burial before having to suck it up and spit in the face of fate once again.
Such a decision would be a bold move, but instead Sanctum joins a long list of movies that think it’s more dramatic to have the seasoned pro die on the job and let the rookie take up their mantle. But, honestly, who cares about that anymore? Not every movie out of Hollywood has to be capped off with a convenient, feel-good ending. It’s okay if the youngest person in a disaster movie - and that’s really all Sanctum is - doesn’t make it out alive. Old people surviving can be a happy event, too.
I can’t say I’m surprised by the ending. This is a James Cameron-produced movie, after all; a sappy ending is just part of the contract. But allowing unqualified Josh to live isn’t like, say, having Ripley outlast all of the marines in Aliens. Ripley earns her right to live. She doesn’t complain about having to be there. She doesn’t mess up on the job. She kicks ass and takes names and establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with. Josh, on the other hand, is the son of the force to be reckoned with. He does little aside from complain and mess up on the job (and his mess up even gets someone killed). But because he’s the youngest he gets to be the center of the Hollywood ending. Yay?
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.
The state of Queensland has been battered by heavy rains in recent weeks and the rising water levels have led to a mass evacuation of towns in the area and the country's third largest city, Brisbane. At least 22 people have died and more than 40 remain missing.
Cameron is currently Down Under promoting his new movie Sanctum 3D, which was filmed in Queensland and tells the story of a group of cave-divers caught up in a violent storm.
The Titanic moviemaker, who acted as an executive producer on Sanctum, admits he's stunned by the scenes of devastation he's witnessing in Australia, telling the AAP, "People always underestimate the power of water. Water can crush you. Whether you spend a lot of time in the water or underwater, as we have in the ocean, or indeed made films when you have to move large amounts of water around, people always consistently underestimate the power of it.
"I think that gives us collectively a great respect for what people are up against in Queensland and, of course, our hearts go out to people who are losing their homes. The scope and scale of it is really horrific."
Sanctum's director, Alister Grierson, adds, "It's a frivolous pursuit, in a sense, what we do for a living - so it's difficult to compare to people's real lives. And we've all got friends and family in Queensland who are suffering through this."