REVIEW: Sanctum [2011]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: February 4th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Alister Grierson
Writer(s): John Garvin & Andrew Wight / Andrew Wight (story)

“Ah … that’s not a wizard”

Who knew the best way to connect an emotionally estranged father and son was to trap them inside an unmapped cave with few materials, an abundance of frenzied spelunkers, and only the hope that the river rising to suffocate them will lead to the ocean and freedom? Inspired by true events, I guess maybe I shouldn’t make light of the situation, especially since John Garvin and Andrew Wight’s screenplay contains many deaths, but I can’t look past the rather convenient way such astronomical odds of survival can help two people learn exactly who the other is. It’s actually in the exposition of creating the many relationship quirks between the main players that falls flat, the first quarter rife with over-acting, dire life and death choices, and an air of goofiness. Yes, the trials and tribulations of the crew and a very early casualty mired in a ‘did he kill her or was she already dead’ debate are necessary for what is to come—once the boulder shuts them in, it’s survival of the fittest. Called Sanctum, the sacred place it describes isn’t only the cavernous abyss, but also the mind of the one man able to get them out.

Containing three recognizable faces, yet no real A-list clout, director Alister Grierson finds his own credit overshadowed by his producer, the legend of underwater filmmaking and 3D theatrics, James Cameron. If you were to ask my parents who directed the film, they’ll tell you Cameron since the TV spots say ‘From the creator of Titanic and Avatar’. The statement may be true, but it is also intentionally misleading and I believe a disservice to the actual minds at work. I don’t want to completely shut the man out, however, since it is his 3D technology that’s utilized to bring a close to seamless field of vision with limited motion blur and glare, but I also don’t want to make light of the fact this tale is based on co-writer Wight’s actual near-death experience leading an expedition into an unknown cave system. Did it play out like what’s shown onscreen? I’d guess not so much, but the claustrophobic qualities and necessity to give your life over to the professional in the group, no matter what happens, who dies, or who goes insane has to be rooted in a place of non-fiction. And it is in those places that the film excels.

It all opens up pretty casually with Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and his divers readying one last look for something unexplored before a horrendous storm comes, flooding their cavern base camp and making escape impossible. His beneficiary, an adventurer himself, Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) and his rock climbing beau Victoria (Alice Parkinson) have just flown over to join in the fun and check out progress, Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) escorting them down. Carl and Josh have a good rapport, joking and understanding each other’s motivations, as well as the stubbornness and precision of the lead diver. Besides learning that Gruffudd can ham it up for the camera and fire all cylinders at an eleven on a ten notch scale, we become clued into the strain between Josh and Frank—a father looking to pass on his knowledge and life of isolation with a son who feels dragged along without ever being asked if he even wanted to go. Roxburgh plays Frank with a sharp edge of ambition and authority, showing the audience how he unfortunately lives his personal life like his professional one—always in control.

As we can guess from the fact a movie has been made, disaster strikes. Tragedy occurs when a trusted diver is lost due to ego, trying to claim territory without a thought for his or her own mortality. The event casts a gloom over the group as half stay to pack things up and the others leave for the surface as communications with land cut off and news of the storm’s arrival becomes impossible to send. Father and son with boyfriend and girlfriend are joined by two trusted colleagues, Luko (Cramer Cain) and George (Dan Wyllie), all trying their best to keep cool in the face of death’s closing grip. The way out is flooded, their only move being into the water and out the other side, an hour of decompression to remove risk of getting ‘the bends’, and the hope there may be a path big enough to travel forward. As Frank dryly states—subtlety and bedside manner not his strong suits—there is no God in the caves and there is no rescue party coming. The people above can only send a body retrieval team; it’s up to them to make it out and it’s up to Frank to give them the push needed.

Gruffudd remains over-the-top throughout and Parkinson does her best to be obnoxious in her holier-than-though attitude and elitist view when given orders. You begin to beg for her death to come soon and be as painful as possible—the disdain for her role so palpable you have to imagine she was based on a real member of Wight’s ill-fated journey. Luckily, though, the rest of the cast fares better in showing the stakes of the situation with nuance and skill. Wyllie ends up my favorite of the bunch, a sort of surrogate son and partner to Frank, one who sees the divide between Josh and the old man, attempting to reach the boy and tell him things will be alright. This chasm of familial love becomes the ultimate strength of the story, resting on the shoulders of Wakefield and Roxburgh, the former doing well to portray youthful angst alongside an ability to be the man his father wants him to be and the latter showing the inner turmoil of regret and guilt as friends fall around him, a stoic display of leadership etched to the façade he bravely keeps up for the others to rally around.

Roxburgh’s Frank may not be the most loved character, but he is the lynchpin and an example of how to never give up. Sanctum is a survival tale like any other—trapped within the grasp of Mother Nature’s unforgiving existence, needing to rise above conflict and fear to will your way to safety. Grierson puts us right in the action, another person caught, following the rest through dark rock and freezing cold water. The 3D helps build the atmosphere and bride our interaction with the group, but in the end the film is really about those onscreen. Not everyone will make it out alive, but the deaths are for the most part treated with authenticity. The suspense builds nicely as they get deeper and the psychological strain of being away from daylight and open air takes over. The story tying everything together could have been stronger, but overall I can’t say the final picture didn’t live up to its billing—an average thriller rooted in reality, the monsters I assumed due to my cynicism of Hollywood existing only through humanity’s ability to lose itself.

[1] Victoria (ALICE PARKINSON) and Carl (IOAN GRUFFUDD) in the 3D action-thriller “Sanctum”, from executive producer James Cameron. The film follows a team of underwater cave divers on a treacherous expedition to the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system on Earth. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures. Copyright: © 2011 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] Frank McGuire (RICHARD ROXBURGH) in the 3D action-thriller “Sanctum”, from executive producer James Cameron. The film follows a team of underwater cave divers on a treacherous expedition to the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system on Earth. Photo Credit: Jasin Boland / Universal Pictures. Copyright: © 2011 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] Richard Roxburgh stars as Frank McGuire in Universal Pictures’ Sanctum (2011)

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