James Cameron did not direct this caving thriller, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that he did, given the extent to which his name has been plastered all over it. In actual fact, the main connection is that Alister Grierson’s debut feature was filmed using the Fusion Camera System which Cameron developed and used to film Avatar.
The film’s story – apparently based on the experiences of Andrew Wright, who co-wrote the film – follows a group of divers who become trapped in a complex network of underground caves when a freak tropical storm floods the entrance. The film’s pacing and structure will be familiar to many – this is, in many ways, standard disaster movie faire. We are introduced to the characters – laughing and grinning irritatingly – in a brief introduction before the basics of caving and the environment the film is to be set in are breathlessly explained. Then it’s down down down as quickly as possible to get to the action.
To be fair to the film, its breezy first 20 minutes turn out to be less annoying than they initially appear, and this is a feeling that comes to embody the entire thing. Rhys Wakefield’s (Home and Away) Josh, for example, first appears to be an irritating grin-machine, only to develop some character as the film goes on and actually becomes rather likable. By comparison, Ioan Gruffud – as Carl Hurley, the man bankrolling the operation – is thankfully stripped of what appears to be the main role as time goes by. His performance is unexpectedly annoying, though it’s hard to tell if this is the fault of the actor or the script. Probably both.
The script, incidentally, isn’t the film’s strongest asset. There is some pleasing use of Coleridge’s poetry on display here, and it could hardly be called an inept script, but it is both derivative and unsubtle at times. Witness, for example, one diver’s considered reaction to the death of one his supposedly well-loved colleagues: “Fuck.”
But the film grows on you. The father-son dynamic between Josh and his father Frank is as stock as they come, but by the end it becomes the film’s focus, a choice that, at the start, you wouldn’t expect to have worked. Richard Roxburgh (as Frank) is a grizzled Aussie caver who often sounds like the insides of his throat are themselves a cave, lined with ancient rock, so vigorously does he grind through his dialogue, but again this becomes less of an issue as his more human side comes out.
The characters are cliched and the script has flaws, problems that could’ve been overcome by great acting turns, but unfortunately there are a few less-than-stellar performances in here. So why isn’t this film terrible? Primarily because it does a good job with the set pieces. The film is suitably claustrophobic (like a drowned The Decent) and does a good job of establishing the ‘man vs nature’ sensation of little humans battling for their lives against nature. It also, pleasingly, doesn’t sugarcoat the dangers its unfortunate protagonists find themselves in, and nor does it ever stretch plausibility.
Its flaws are initially off-putting, but stick with it and Sanctum 3-D does do a good job of establishing tension and comes with some well-staged set pieces. The 3-D itself is, as is so often the case, underwhelming. The film looks impressive at times, but none of that is down to the 3-D. It seemed like a great opportunity to use the medium, but in reality some cascading water effects are the best you’re going to get.