Film Review with Robert Mann – Sanctum 3D

Sanctum 3D **½
Sanctum 2D *½

“From executive producer James Cameron, creator of Titanic and Avatar” – these words have been plastered all over the marketing for Sanctum 3D and the simple association of Cameron with the film will undoubtedly create a certain level of expectation as to the standard of filmmaking that is on offer here. Do not be fooled though – this is NOT a James Cameron movie.

Cameron’s only role here is that of an executive producer, with him being involved in neither the writing nor the direction, and while the Fusion 3D camera system that he developed for and used in the shooting of Avatar was used to make this film, the same was also true of 3D films such as Resident Evil: Afterlife and Tron Legacy, neither of which claimed to have any involvement from Cameron. It is perhaps possible that Cameron’s involvement simply has something to do with his love of underwater exploration – after all, while he was developing the 3D technology to do Avatar he made two IMAX 3D documentaries in which he went beneath the ocean in a submersible to film the wonders that lie below, Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep – but, regardless of the reason for his association with this film, it doesn’t change the fact that this is not his film. Rather, the director is Alister Grierson, whose only previous directorial credit, aside from several shorts, is 2006 Australian war movie Kokoda: 39th Battalion and the screenplay is written by first time writer John Garvin (who also appears among the film’s cast) along with Andrew Wight, whose only previous filmmaking experience has been as a producer in numerous TV nature documentaries as well as Cameron’s two 3D underwater documentaries and who was involved in the real events which have inspired this film when he and fourteen other people who went cave diving became trapped in a cave for two days and had to look for another way out after their entrance collapsed. At the beginning of the film a message reads “This film is inspired by a true story” so, despite Wight having being involved in the real events, it is almost certain that liberties have been taken in the telling of the story on screen. So, Cameron’s movie this may not be but many people may well go in expecting an experience to rival Avatar. Does this film deliver it? Don’t count on it.

Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) is an expert cave diver who is on the verge of a major breakthrough as he explores the largest cave system in the world, one that is completely unexplored by man. He knows that what he does comes with risks and is well aware of the dangers that lay ahead but he never lets his team – George (Dan Wyllie), Judes (Allison Cratchley), Luko (Cramer Cain), J.D. (Christopher Baker) and Jim (John Garvin) – down, always trusting his know-how to see him and his team through. All his experience, however, cannot prepare him for what happens when a cyclone hits, flooding the caves and forcing them deep into the caverns with no way out but down. Now, his team of adrenalin junkies, including his 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), financier Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd) and Carl’s mountain climbing girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), must survive raging torrents of water, deadly terrain and depleting oxygen levels as they desperately make their way further into the caves towards the ocean in a bid to escape. But the underwater labyrinth has plenty of nasty surprises in store for these intrepid adventurers, ones that will challenge the most hardcore of thrill-seekers. Will they all make it out alive?

Sanctum 3D is a film that offers only one thing that actually makes it worth seeing and the clue is in the title. With James Cameron’s name attached and his Fusion camera system being used in filming you would at least expect top quality 3D and for the most part the film does deliver in this department, the 3D here generally being very good. As you would expect the 3D here is true 3D not a mediocre post production conversion job and, taking the approach of purely beyond the window 3D with nothing coming towards or out of the screen, the 3D is used to take us on a journey to another world – just like with Avatar but this time the world we are taken to is on Earth not some distant alien planet – one that is full of beautiful locations, both outside of and inside the caves. 3D is a great tool for showing us exotic locales that are untainted by man and here it is utilised quite superbly at times, bringing the environments featured on screen to vivid life. Before events move into the caves, the 3D vividly brings to life some quite exotic locations, albeit only briefly, and when events move into the cave system the beauty continues with the 3D making it seem like there really is an entire system of caves behind the cinema screen and, in scenes that take place underwater, like the cinema screen is the wall of a giant water tank and all the events we are seeing are taking place within it. In particular, the sight of a giant cave completely underwater is stunning and the film delivers many money shots such as this one that make the film extremely appealing for the eyes, showing us the kind of places many of us could only ever dream of actually going to and seeing in person – this film is almost like there actually being there. The 3D also proves to be an effective tool in other aspects, heightening the sense of claustrophobia in scenes where the characters find themselves in tight squeezes and also enhancing the sense of fear by allowing us to experience how deep the caves are first hand, something which gives us a greater understanding of the peril that the characters are in. The 3D visuals are breathtaking and ensure that, in visual terms at least, the film is quite an experience but the 3D is all there really is to the film and if you take it away, while the cinematography may still prove quite appealing, the film will likely lose its impact. The one area where the 3D doesn’t contribute much is in the conversation based scenes, of which of there are far too many, and this is where the film’s failings begin. The dialogue is abysmal, the lines the actors have to speak being some of the most cringe worthy I’ve heard since last year’s The Last Airbender – for instance, one character says “What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?”, something I doubt anyone with even half a brain would actually say something in real life – and scenes of conversation are so badly scripted as to make sitting through them completely tedious, such scenes really beginning to drag after a while. To make matters worse, apparent attempts to make us care about the characters fail with the characterisation are so poor as to make it virtually impossible to actually give a damn about what happens to any of the characters, there being no emotional connection with any of them. And with awful writing tends to come awful acting. The acting is largely dreadful with only a few cast members proving tolerable, Richard Roxburgh and Ioan Gruffudd emerging as the better performers and the general standard here is more the level that would expect to find in a cheesy television advert or an Australian soap opera than a mainstream movie. Add to the lowsy acting the fact that, when everyone dons their diving suits and heads underwater, it becomes hard to tell who is who and that, even as characters are dying, there is a complete absence of dramatic tension, not to mention an extremely convenient plot device that coming into play at the end, and you have a film that may well emerge as frontrunner as the next Razzies for its poor writing. The fact that John Garvin has no writing experience at all and that Andrew Wight is a cave diver, rather than a writer, probably goes some way to explain why the writing is so bad but hardly excuses the poor quality on display in this film or the fact that James Cameron has any association with it. So, the dazzling visuals on display in Sanctum 3D provide something of a distraction from the mediocrity on display elsewhere but when the 3D taken out of the equation the magnitude of these failings would become all the more evident. Like Avatar this is a film that delivers a breathtaking visual experience but unlike that film there is no heart or soul, this being a film that is often stunningly spectacular in terms of its visuals and quite enjoyable at times but dig deeper and you will find something every bit as hollow as the caves that are featured in it.


Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Avatar
    Anonymous 7th February 2011

    Totally disagree with review regarding the script and acting in Sanctum. I thought it was entirely realistically written and performed. There could not be long dialogues of sparkling narrative whilst enclosed in caves and concentrating on survival…let`s get real! Agreed about the stunning photography and 3D effects. Admired the way this film had been handled…different, thought-provoking and sensitive. Found the way the relationship between father and son was portrayed to be very effective and emotive…didnt need huge amounts of words! Just as they say “a picture speaks a thousand words”, so the writer of Sanctum used intelligent “less is more” to enhance and ground this movie. Go and see this film and do not be put off by reviews that can be so nagative. James Cameron is no fool and would not sanction anything less than outstandingly brilliant!

  • Avatar
    Tim 7th February 2011

    Well, I thought it was alright…


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