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Movie review: 'Sanctum'

'Sanctum' uses top technology, but the gee-whiz factor is overwhelmed by the oh-jeez writing.

February 04, 2011|Michael Phillips
  • A scene from "Sanctum."
A scene from "Sanctum." (Jasin Boland / Rogue Pictures )

Photographed with the same image-acquisition technology James Cameron used on "Avatar," the movie on which we can blame most of the cruddy 3-D films since, the new suspense thriller "Sanctum," executive-produced by Cameron, presents images (underwater, generally) of pristine digital clarity, without the aggravating dimness of a movie shot in 2-D and then converted in postproduction. So it's the high-type 3-D.

The characters, the dialogue, the water-based peril — the stuff the 3-D is supposed to be supporting in the name of racking our nerves — well, "Sanctum" has problems with those. An Australian production, the film contains a tiny kernel of "based on a true story," that of a particularly rough underwater caving expedition undertaken by "Sanctum" producer and co-writer Andrew Wight, who's a rock star in his field and a pal of diving enthusiast Cameron. That risky, dangerous 1988 expedition claimed no casualties. Grimmer than "127 Hours," this movie is like a remake of "And Then There Were None" directed by Jacques Cousteau.

To make things odder, at heart it's a father-son bonding tale. The Ahab-like underwater cave diver Frank, played as a human growl by Richard Roxburgh, is leading his intrepid crew deep into "the largest unexplored cave system in the world" off New Guinea. A terrible storm gnashes its terrible teeth and communication with the rest of the team is cut off; the caves begin to flood, with the divers (including Frank's teenage son, played by the appealing Rhys Wakefield) unable to use their original point of entry to escape.

The premise is strong with "Sanctum," and for a while you swim with it. Director Alister Grierson and cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin combine location shooting, digital effects and a considerable amount of soundstage and water-tank footage. The sets start looking like a high-end water park only when the suspense sequences begin repeating themselves.

The writing really is bad in this film, and even talented actors such as Ioan Gruffudd (a Welshman, faking a generic American dialect) and his fellow adventurer played by Alice Parkinson (Australian, faking the same) come off as rank amateurs.

Everyone screams and panics and spews cliches, constantly, whether the context is hubris ("This cave's not gonna beat me!") or portents of doom ("This cave'll kill you in a heartbeat!") or expositional duhs ("The cave is flooding!") or, after the latest round of hypothermia or petty infighting, some hard-won advice to Those Who Will Go On To Tell The Story ("Trust the cave and follow the river").

Here and there, an image of spectral beauty, assisted by the 3-D technology, floats into view and captures our imagination. But the script, which really should've been called "Sanctimonium," has a serious case of the bends.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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