Monday, February 7, 2011

Sanctum (2011): A Review (Review #190)


I confess to having left Sanctum slightly entertained by its own second-rate nature. Everything about it was predictable, but my mild pleasure may have come due to some beautiful underwater imagery courtesy of Jules O'Laughlin's cinematography. It's more impressive personally considering what an aquaphobe I tend to be. Even by the relatively low standards Sanctum is aiming for, the film suffers from a whole range of standard cliches, ranging from characters to plot, and some truly awful acting that make a SyFy Channel original look like a Method case study.

Josh (Rhys Wakefield) is the son of legendary explorer Frank (Richard Roxburgh). He hates spelunking (or caving if you prefer), which is one of the things that puts Josh at odds with Frank. Other things includes Frank's harsh treatment of Josh and his absenteeism from Josh's life except for one month out of the year, which somehow always involves caves. In any case, Josh and Frank are in Papua New Guinea, where Frank is exploring Esa Ala, the largest unexplored cave system in the world. His venture is financed by Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), an American billionaire. Carl comes to Esa Ala to look at how things are going, bringing along his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson). Down the massive hole in the ground they go, but in spite of getting warnings about a storm, Frank decides to continue the expedition, even after one of his companions, Judes (Alison Cratchley) dies.

Needless to say, the storm turns into a cyclone, and our main characters, along with technician George (or as he's billed, Crazy George:Dan Wyllie) trapped within the massive cave system. Now, they must go further into the cave to try to escape. Sanctum then turns into a cheaper Poseidon Adventure, where it soon becomes obvious who will leave the cave alive and who will not.

The co-writer of Sanctum was inspired by true life events to bring this film to life. Something similar happened to Andrew Wight (who co-wrote the screenplay with John Garvin): Wight had been trapped in a cave for two days with a group. Obviously, he made it out alive, but one gets the sense that his story would have been more interesting than what he and Garvin came up with. One wonders if both of them decided to throw in all the standard cliches in a film like this so as to not make their audience think.

Let's go over some of the set stock characters and situations: gruff father, angry son, arrogant billionaire, whiny girlfriend, somewhat wacky sidekick. Need a wise native elder? Well, you got one in a roundabout way. At least three times before the main action starts we flash to an elderly Papua New Guinean for no reason who says nothing and has nothing to do with whatever story is being told. The story of the son who hates his father and his profession only to really bond with him at the end: is that somehow considered original?

If Sanctum were perhaps trying to play this for laughs, if it were going for B-Picture status, trying to almost be a parody of 'people trapped and needing to find a way out' films, it could have worked. However, the fact that they were playing it totally straight and serious only adds to the unintended humor of it all. I referenced The Poseidon Adventure because of the perhaps now-standard method of killing off characters one by one in order to have drama and pathos.

However, the difference between The Poseidon Adventure and Sanctum is that in the former, you spent some time building their characters so as to have some emotional investment in them while in the latter you just hand the audience a 'cheat-sheet' version: rich man is brash and egocentric, girlfriend is whiny and a bit of a coward, son is angry, father is abrupt, and hope you care. You don't. Part of you actually wants some if not all the characters to meet a rather grisly end. Just look at the types you're dealing with and you know which ones they are.

As standard as those characters and situations are, that could be overlooked, but not the rather bad acting from everyone involved. Director Alister Grierson seemed more interested in capturing the beauty of underwater exploration than he did in his cast. With the exception of Gruffudd, no one in Sanctum is internationally known, and while it was a wise decision to let the Australian actors keep their native accents, it was a poor decision to not give them any characters to actually perform.

None of the main actors gave performances. Wakefield's angry young man apart from being unoriginal was also a bit annoying. He just wasn't able to have any emotion apart from variations of 'I hate my dad'. Roxburgh just kept growling and growling throughout Sanctum, except at the end, but by then we really didn't care. There was something illogical about Frank: he's suppose to be this master caver, but is apparently unconcerned with the fact that a major storm is coming his way.

A more sensible person with vast experience would have told his crew to leave, but no, Expert Frank decides: oh, a storm, that's not important. He also is oddly detached from the fact that so many people are dying around him, as if all that is a mere inconvenience to his plans. In fairness, no one really seems to react that there are bodies flowing all over the place. Sanctum is divorced from character who care or whom we care about, even though it wants us to.

Worse was Parkinson's Victoria; every time we saw her she did nothing but whine. Now, maybe that was the whole reason for her character, but she never communicated anything with her face: no fear, no terror, just endless frustration at the indignity of having to go down a giant water-filled cavern. Gruffudd to his credit maintained a complete and convincing American accent, but at the end, at what is suppose to be a climatic moment, his beaten-up face almost makes it look comical. Even here, we have another cliche: without giving too much away, I did wonder why someone just didn't die.

If the makers of Sanctum (including producer James Cameron, who should have looked at the script instead of being mesmerized by the prospect of underwater photography) had made a few changes, we would have had a better picture. Why not have the father and son actually love each other? Why not have Josh want to follow in his father's footsteps? Why not have each character have their own moment where they contribute something, come up with a solution to whatever situation they come across? Why not have them work together? Why not let everyone live, or at least not dispatch everyone one by one? If one person has to die, at least make it near the end of the film as opposed to just waiting for another one to bite the dust (or swallow the water, as it were). That gives something of an emotional release that Sanctum may have been going for but which it couldn't do.

As I am more and more removed from watching Sanctum, I can see the flaws outweigh the benefits: again, I go back to some beautiful imagery. Bad acting, a nonsensical story, weak direction, even a person set ablaze that elicited more laughter than suspense or terror (the phrase, 'Mr. Fantastic squealing like a little girl' was used) all sink Sanctum (no pun intended).

In short, Sanctum can be enjoyed if you suspend your thinking completely. However, you do run the risk of falling asleep. At least one positive came from watching Sanctum: I got a mad desire to go to nearby Carlsbad Caverns.

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