When not crafting Hollywood studio blockbusters (and sometimes even when doing so, as with The Abyss and of course Titanic), James Cameron has translated a lifelong passion for underwater exploration into any number of special documentaries and side projects, and Sanctum — executive produced by the Oscar-winning filmmaker, and deploying some of the same 3-D technology used in Avatar — is his latest filmmaking assist to the nature-discovery realm, though this time it’s the sub-speciality of spelunking upon which he throws a spotlight.
Shot on location off the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, and based on true events, the film follows a team of underwater cave divers during a treacherous expedition deep inside the largest and least accessible cave system on the planet. His work funded by adventurist multimillionaire businessman Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd, above right), master diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) oversees a team that’s been exploring the Esa Ala Caves in Papua New Guinea for over a month. When both an unexpected tragedy down below and a “topside” storm and its resultant flash flood force a dramatic change in their exit plans, Frank’s team, including his 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), are forced to navigate an underwater labyrinth and search for an
unknown escape route to the sea in an effort to make it out alive.
The movie’s script, by John Garvin and Andrew Wight, trades largely in stock types,
but director Alister Grierson nicely juggles the requirements of confined space adventure with the movie’s somewhat more pedestrian human drama. It’s not ever really convincingly
communicated why Sanctum has to necessarily be shot in 3-D (and thus
come bundled with the accompanying uptick in ticket price), but the nature of its setting is at least ably delineated, and the stakes clear, and engaging.
There’s also a sort of charm to the brutally streamlined candor of the character of Frank; as the group starts to make their way through a tight space, he assigns the rear to the least experienced of the bunch, Carl’s wife, noting bluntly that if she starts to panic and gets stuck, anyone behind her is dead. Roxburgh, for his part, is particularly solid; perhaps best known Stateside for his turn as the mustachioed villain helping to keep apart Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, he here gives a gruff but charismatic performance, and he and Wakefield evince a believably frayed father-son rapport — one of mutual respect but near perpetual exasperation.
Sanctum doesn’t prove itself radical or revelatory, either narratively or from the vantage point of technological innovation, but it does hold one’s attention, and make an audience care about the shared plight of its characters. Even if, perhaps, the lesson they take away is but this: “Damn, I’m never going that far underground.” (Universal, PG-13, 103 minutes)