Sanctum is executive produced by James Cameron, but its dazzling 3D visuals can't conceal its flaws
Director: Alistair Grierson
Starring: Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Grufford, Rhys Wakefield
The Abyss meets The Descent in this Australia-set action adventure that utilises the same Fusion 3D system that helped Avatar become the highest-grossing movie yet. Given this, the water theme and the impending peril storyline, it's no surprise to learn that James Cameron, who helped develop the project and choose the director, is on board as an executive producer. But by the same token, it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that after a promising opening and some fabulous looking scenes, the characters turn into stereotypes long before the grand finale.
The director, Alister Grierson, makes great use of the locations off the Gold Coast of Queensland and in the caves of South Australia, making the terrain seem both imposing and alluring at the same time. The set up with the sweeping vistas and the dangerous activity that combines physical prowess with scientific research has something of Luc Besson's brilliant The Big Blue about it. Alas, here, the beautiful locations are never quite matched by a movie that takes a real-life incident and layers it with a very fictionalised, clichéd story.
Sanctum'sscreenwriter and producer, Andrew Wight, is a renowned caver who in 1988 led an expedition to explore and dive down a remote cave system hidden beneath the Nullarbor Plain in Australia. During the course of this trip, a huge storm caused the cave entrance to collapse, leaving 15 people trapped deep underground.
The central group of characters and the number of people trapped in the cave is much smaller in the movie.
The principal diver is Frank Mcguire (Roburgh) an authoritarian and stubborn figure who has dragged his 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) along for the ride despite his child wanting to do pretty much anything else with his time.
At the centre of the film is the relationship between father and son. It's straight out of the screenwriters handbook that an initially estranged family will, through a disaster, come together and overcome their problems, and that, sadly, is the story arc running through this picture. As the characters move deeper and deeper into the cave, the movie becomes less about which members of the team will reach the safety of the Pacific Ocean and more about whether the son will learn to respect his father, and vice versa.
That's a shame because Sanctum starts out as edge-of-your-seat fare.
Also part of the team is the reckless financier Carl (Welsh actor Ioan Grufford playing American again), who insists on coming on the dive.
He also brings his adventure-junkie girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) along as well, despite her having zero experience of diving. Rounding off the principal cast is Frank's right-hand man, diver Crazy George (Dan Wyllie).
In addition to this main group, five others are trapped in the cave when a storm blocks the entrance and waiting forlornly at base camp is Jim Sergeant (played by another of the scriptwriters, John Garvin).
The twist of the film and indeed much of its tension is that whereas everyone survived the real-life incident, the characters in the movie are not so lucky. Most of the tension in the early scenes is garnered by the surprisingly frequent deaths. Indeed, the characters die at a rate that would make many war movies green with envy, and after a while it becomes no surprise to see a major character die. Alas, as with the TV series Big Brother, there comes a tipping point when too many central characters have been lost, and those that remain seem stale and tepid. It's at this point that the movie starts to struggle to hold interest.
On the plus side, the visuals never stop being dazzling, something Sanctum shares with Avatar. Whether it's scenes of open vistas such as during the opening journey towards the cave, or the claustrophobic underwater close-ups of the trapped divers, Grierson successfully makes use of the 3D technology to heighten the experience.
This is one of those rare instances where 3D is actually a bonus rather than a bugbear of the moviegoing experience. However, no matter how nice the visuals, it doesn't hide the fact that Sanctum is a run-of-the-mill disaster flick with a weathered plot and predictable characters.