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?