Tight spaces, dark caves, life or death hanging in the balance. If you've seen The Descent you know that a lot of inherent human unease can be exposed and exploited by putting people in tight spots. But while Sanctum is satisfying in its workman-like exploration of tight-spottery, the immediate comparability of its premise with The Descent and other successful survival movies is precisely what threatens to limit its appeal.
Sanctum's big draw is that it is executive produced by superstar director James Cameron. 20 years after he took us underwater with The Abyss, Cameron returns to the deep, passing the reins to Australian director Alister Grierson, who uses the "3-D photography techniques Cameron developed to lens Avatar." Exactly what those techniques are is unknown to me, and while the film has one or two moments of 3-D novelty, for the most part I would have preferred it without the distraction.
Early on, Sanctum makes good use of its beautiful location. A helicopter arrival allows aerial shots off the Gold Coast of Australia, as the chopper lands upon an enormous crater in the jungle. Master explorer Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) and his ragtag team of fellow enthusiasts are in the midst of mapping a system of caves in Papua New Guinea when a severe storm traps them underground. With the way out blocked by rocks and flooding caverns, they are forced to explore deeper than they've gone before in the hopes of finding an exit to the surface. As the reality of their situation sets in, one character lets loose an exasperated "My god...;" our stalwart hero Frank replies "There is no god down here."
This comically emotionless reply is mostly Sanctum feigning savagery. Yes, people will perish and the straits are dire, but the film is rarely harrowing. There's a looseness in the cinematography and editing that fails to inspire viewer discomfort, and eventually you resign yourself to a rousing adventure film, not a thriller. The R rating is squarely for language rather than violence, and, although I would never suggest such a thing I am surprised the filmmakers didn't dub out a few F-bombs in an effort to open the film with a teen-friendly PG-13.
Slight on gore and absolutely not a thriller, Sanctum is nevertheless wholly committed to delivering excitement. The script feels like it was written in a hurry and the film's emotional heft can be literally laughable, but Sanctum chugs along largely on chutzpah. Frank and his team - including son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), project money-man Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), and Carl's girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) - are consistently placed in life-threatening situations and manage to survive by deep diving and rock-climbing along slippery rocks and through samey-looking tunnels. I watched half expecting a killer creature or alien, and am instead a little impressed that the film insisted on the singular enterprise of extreme sports.
Eventually, the film must have its villain and its savior, but for most of its running time Sanctum's refusal to slow down carries its audience forward in spite of the flaws. We've probably seen much of this film before: the rock climbing, the decompression sickness and the hypothermia, and the use of 3-D isn't likely to inspire many other studios to come banging on James Cameron's door begging for his secret "photography techniques." But a laundry list can also be a wish list, and Sanctum hit enough of the notes on my list to keep my butt in a seat for 100 minutes. Maybe that's all you can ask for in the doldrums of February.