The James Cameron effect


Sanctum is a movie that could use a monster. I mean, doesn't that title, along with the chilly production stills, seem to promise some awful beastie lurking in the bowels of the earth, ready to devour the cast of a low-budget horror film? What we actually have here, however, is a 3D film about cave-diving, a pastime whose enthusiasts rappel down the sides of huge holes in the ground to crawl about in the caves below—a sloshy business, the caves having been receptacles for the rainfall of the ages. The picture is beautifully designed and photographed (in Australian locales and sound stages), but the story, which is very light on plot, eventually piddles away into a series of unfortunate underwater events, none of them especially gripping.

The caving team is led by steely Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh)—"the most respected explorer of our time," as one character helpfully explains. Among the others taking part in the enterprise are Frank's disaffected son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield); big-mouth expedition bankroller Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffud); and Carl's thrill-junkie girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson). Down in the rocky depths of the hole with their wetsuits, dive tanks, and re-breather face masks, the adventurers prepare to submerge in a deep pool and go flippering off below to explore the narrow underwater tunnels (this is not a movie for people with serious claustrophobia issues) and cathedral-size landings of the vast cave system. "What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?" one character actually asks. Then comes word from a support team high above, on terra firma, that an enormous tropical storm is moving in. Question answered.

The storm hits hard, of course. Torrents of water come flooding down into the big hole, blocking the team's exit point and driving them deeper into the caves, where they swim around in desperate search of some other means of egress. At this point the story becomes an exercise in serial extinction, as one after another of the stalwart band succumbs to the bends and bone breaks and ill-considered subaqueous decisions. Australian director Alister Grierson's ability to capture action in tight close-ups—even in the most constricting underwater tunnels—is impressive. And there's a moment of real feeling when Frank accepts that a grievously injured team member he's cradling in his arms has no chance of surviving, and as an act of mercy pushes the man down into the water and holds him there to drown. But despite the attempted variation of a subplot involving the prickly relationship between Frank and his son, which never gains narrative traction, the procession of death scenes grows monotonous—although not before the flat-footed dialogue does. ("This cave's not gonna beat me!" "Every fiber of her being was driven to explore." "You've gotta seize the day!")      

The movie can be recommended mainly to fans of high-end 3D technology. It was shot with the Fusion 3D camera system developed by James Cameron and Vincent Pace, which was used most ambitiously in filming Cameron's Avatar—a great-looking picture that's similarly flimsy in the story department. Cameron is one of this film's several producers (along with story author Andrew Wight, his collaborator on the scuba documentaries Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss), and his influence is apparent. There are no poke-in-the-eye effects of the sort that make 3D…well, fun. Instead, as was the case with Avatar, the process is used to lend subtle depth to the imagery. Unfortunately, the 3D glasses required to appreciate this—or at least the pair I was handed—dim the light even more than usual, and the resulting visual murk is a continuous frustration. Is this really an experience worth paying more money for? It feels as if we're watching the whole movie underwater.                   

Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.