Movie Review: Sanctum

By Matthew Huntley

February 10, 2011

Ooh, dark, barely visible things in 3D! Fantastic!

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Movies like Sanctum would be so much more effective if the characters inhabiting them were real and believable. As they stand, in Sanctum anyway, they’re merely pawns in a screenplay whose only purpose is to bridge together scenes with grandiose images, gruesome action and special effects. And while those images and effects are sometimes awesome to behold, we’re still left feeling empty because, at the end of the day, there’s no one left to really care about.

I admit I went into this movie with no real faith in its story, which is another one of those “inspired by true events”-type deals. Funnily enough, there’s no retrospection or recap on the real-life individuals. We have no idea who these people really were or what they experienced. Not that it would have made a huge difference, but at least it would have satiated our curiosities about the truths that supposedly inspired the lackadaisical script.

In the movie, a group of cave divers seeks to be the first to explore uncharted territory in one of the deepest, darkest caverns of Papua New Guinea. Naturally, disaster strikes when a storm floods and blocks the cave’s only path back up to the surface, forcing the divers to move forward with no maps, limited resources and inexperienced novices. They’re not even sure there’s a way out.


The expedition is led by the emotionally cold Frank (Richard Roxburgh), whose heartlessness makes him an easy target for his neglected and resentful son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield). Frank’s personality also make it easy for the screenplay to work in one of those perfunctory scenes where the father must apologize for not being there when his son needed him and that he’s really sorry, proud, etc.

Along with the bickering father and son, there’s the rich, egotistical financier (Ioan Gruffudd), his stubborn girlfriend (Alice Parkinson), and another diver (Dan Wyllie) who knows the danger signs when he sees them. Each of these secondary characters only exists to either: a) die; b) hold the group up somehow; or c) turn on the others. Like I suggested, substance and originality are not this movie’s strong suits.

What are the movie’s strong suits are the production design and cinematography, including the 3D visuals. Though the movie lacks credibility on the character level, I was convinced everything taking place was in a cave and not necessarily a set. I’m sure a lot of it was filmed on sound stages, but on film, I was convinced otherwise. The way the characters have to squeeze, maneuver, climb, duck and swim puts us in a state of genuine tension and claustrophobia. These types of images were executed well enough that the movie had no business resorting to cheap gimmicks like one character’s hair getting caught in a chain and their skin getting ripped off. I doubt anything this drastic or horror movie-like happened during the real life ordeal.

As good as they sometimes are, the production values only go so far. I went into Sanctum expecting it would only serve as a visual feast - a 3D movie that would provide a few rush moments and a sense of awe based purely on its look and movement. It does that to a degree, but the movie needs more substance for us to appreciate or lend credence to it. If it had taken the time to be about real people and not just stock movie characters, and actually provide them with interesting dialogue, it might have been worth our time. Sometimes visuals can be enough to sustain our interest, no matter how hackneyed the story (Avatar), but most of the time they’re not. Sanctum is a case where they’re not.



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