Review: James Cameron's 'Sanctum' is Flawed, But Still an Adventure
by Jeremy Kirk
February 7, 2011
Claustrophobia is not an easy sensation to convey on film. Certain directors in the past, the Hitchcocks and the Carpenters of the industry, have been able to pull it off almost effortlessly. More recently, Rodrigo Cortes did an amazing job pulling off the grasping for air one goes through when they find themselves in a closed in area with Buried. So it shouldn't be held too much against director Alister Grierson that his job of transferring Claustrophobia is a little hit and a little miss with Sanctum. After all, this is a Hollywood film with backing from James Cameron, a man not exactly known for the nuance of his execution. There's a commendable sense of adventure when you get to the heart of Sanctum, but on top it's still a whole lot of professional lighting, swelling musical cues, and even voiceover narration. All the things that work towards stifling a sense of fear that might have been welcome here.
The synopsis isn't all that heady. A group of cave divers are searching through a vast series of underground tunnels, looking for a passage that leads to the ocean and mark their names in history. The group is pretty much setup exactly how you would expect. Richard Roxburgh plays Frank, the hard-headed but more-right-than-not team lead. Rhys Wakefield plays his son, Josh, who just wants freedom from his father's overbearing sensibilities. Ioan Gruffud plays Carl, the adventure-seeking money man behind the expedition. There are more in the group, but they might as well be wearing Star Trek-style red shirts. Especially when a storm swoops in blocking the group in the tunnels. With water rising, the group must push through and find another way out before their lights, food and oxygen are depleted.
Grierson and the screenwriters behind Sanctum do a good job establishing each character giving them a weight that's much more than rice paper thin. They also do a fine job establishing pretty close to the beginning the dangers of trekking through these tunnels most of which are completely submerged under water. If you make a mistake down there, you could very well wind up dead, and if you represent a potential threat to the group, you could end up being sacrificed for the greater good. That's where Frank's character is so strong. There are numerous times through the film where he has to make decisions for the group. They aren't always the easiest decisions, but he takes the more practical road, the one that may seem cold and callous at first glance.
Of course, Frank wouldn't have to make those decisions if everyone in the group would just listen to him. That's where the first problem with Sanctum comes in. This guy is clearly at the top of his game. He's been chosen to lead a multi-million dollar expedition into one of the mysterious and dangerous locations on the planet. It might be a good idea to follow his instructions to the letter. However, this is a disaster movie, one where people have to die horribly, so their characters are written in such a way they act irrationally. They make decisions that end up costing them their lives, usually in overly-choreographed, obviously-mounted plot point succession. Here's another big room. Here's another obstacle to get past. Someone's gonna die a horrible R-rated death. Either that or they'll be injured in a way that drowning them for the sake of their pain is the best option. The film does a good job driving that nail in, and it's effective for the most part.
The tension is always present even if the violent beats are staged to the point of being transparent. Even if you know precisely what is going to happen, the visuals of people climbing through narrow tunnels and swimming vast, underwater caves heightens the suspense even when very little actually taking place.
At least, that is the case for half of the film. Grierson holds back on the Hollywood lighting and clear CG surroundings for a good part of Sanctum. The other part is filled with obvious special effects and shots of underground caves being lit up where you have absolutely no clue where the light is coming from. The adventure and suspense almost make you unaware that is even happening, but after you get the pace of the film's structure, once you recognize precisely what turn the film is going to take next, you begin to take notice of the details. That's when you begin questioning where certain light sources are really coming from.
The film is being sold as a 3D adventure, and, for the most part, that description is accurate. It's definitely an adventure, and it's absolutely presented in 3D. Take the 3D aspect of it however you might. Some like it. Others don't, but it didn't seem to add much in the way of flare for me. It does create a nice sense of depth to the underground tunnels. It may even go to some lengths in hiding how poor the CG really is.
Problems or not, poorly designed lighting or not, ridiculously place voice over narration or not, Sanctum is still a film that brings the adventure. There's an excitement to the film that seems to work despite all of its obvious flaws. That could be the Cameron angle working overtime. While Grierson could have turned up the fear and Claustrophobia side of Sanctum by going a little Neil Marshall or Rodrigo Cortes on it, he still succeeded in delivering a thrilling movie that charges its audience. Just don't pay attention to the lights.
Jeremy's Rating: 6 out of 10