‘Sanctum’ movie review: James Cameron-produced underwater thriller

Sanctum looks great in crisp, clean James Cameron-approved 3D, but that’s about the best that can be said for it; while more-than-competently put together on the technical side, what we see in front of the camera is strictly amateur hour, with poor portrayals of underwritten characters filling out a by-the-numbers disaster movie plot. All that separates this from a Z-grade SyFy original is a CGI Sharktopus.

It’s not quite that bad – and it is sufficiently entertaining in a campy, just-go-with-it way – but I was nevertheless shocked to see James Cameron’s name attached to the film as executive producer. That name alone garnered the film a theatrical release, though his involvement was likely limited to 3D and underwater cinematography; still, he’s typically been more careful about his projects, even as producer.

In a massive, unexplored cave system in Papua New Guinea, cave explorer and expert diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) is leading a partially-underwater cave exploration. About to join him and his team are brash son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), gung-ho billionaire Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), and Carl’s inexperienced girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson).

Before they arrive, we’re treated to our first death scene: diver Judes (Allison Cratchley), who wasn’t feeling very well, goes out on a dive with Frank, minus a backup tank. Her hose suddenly snaps, and she panics as Frank tries to share his face mask with her, so he wrestles it back and watches her drown in front of him. Tough guy. 

Still to come: two more ridiculous “mercy drownings,” in which characters are put out of their misery by being forced underwater in some of the most unpleasant deaths imaginable.

I’m getting ahead of myself; the rest of the characters are perfectly fine… unless it rains. But it won’t rain for two more days. So one group is on their way out of the cave when suddenly, the horror, it starts to rain. 

The cave is flooded, and a boulder conveniently washes against the only exit. Frank, Josh, Carl, Victoria, and Crazy George (Dan Wyllie), who hasn’t dived in years, are trapped. “The only way out is down.”

From this point, you’ll know exactly what happens; each actor is not portraying a character, but rather a well-worn stereotype, the kind that was well-worn back in the days of The Poseidon Adventure and Airport ’77

Beyond that, there’s little thought given to any of the performances – each is unusually bland. Unlikely plot turns draw laughs and guffaws; they’re compounded with the sheer stupidity of the characters, each pushed to their stereotypical extreme, with no logic involved.

But yes, the film does look good – too good, maybe, as the crisp, sanitized style betrays the gritty nature of the cave system. Still, it’s one of the better-looking 3D projects, shot in a 3D that adds true depth and never cheap thrills; the shot composition and editing, however, render many scenes difficult to follow.

Alternative fare: Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours for a true-life survival tale, Neil Marshall’s The Descent for thrilling, claustrophobic cave exploration horror, and the ”Caves” episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth for a truly dazzling look at the subject.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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