One of the first films that James Cameron turned his attention to after Avatar (2009), was the Aussie genre film Sanctum (2011) which Cameron produced. That fact, as well as the fact it was (I believe) the first Australian film to utilise 3D, got the film a relatively large amount of hype, at least here.
Whilst the film was relatively panned by critics and did not go so well at the box office, I think it deserves a bit of a reappraisal. Definitely imperfect, Sanctum is an atmospheric and refreshingly dark thriller. You know what is good for creating atmosphere? Frickin caves. You know what the only thing scarier than caves is? Frickin cave diving. Sanctum makes the best of these indisputable facts as it traps an eclectic bunch of divers deep within a cave system in Papua New Guinea. With their path to the surface blocked, their only option is to journey through the previously unexplored cave system to find the ocean. The film is beautifully shot. Some of the establishing shots of the PNG countryside are jaw-dropping and the budget clearly extended to some really excellent aerial photography. Without overdoing things, the photography also ramps up the suffocating claustrophobia that cave diving brings. The kind of claustrophobia that can, and does, seriously affect one’s mental state. The narrative is a little silly. It reminded me of that terrible film Vertical Limit (2000) where a whole bunch of people die in a mountain rescue, but you still feel happy because the right one lives. But as an exercise in tension, it works pretty well, managing to overcome dafter moments such as a base jump into the cave. This was my second viewing of the film and I did notice this time that it is quite a difficult watch. There is a brutal edge to many of the proceedings and it is rather harrowing to sit through things right til the end. Sitting through it will reward though, because there is heaps to like about the film.
The performances in Sanctum are a bit of a mixed bag. Richard Roxburgh is the most effective as the grizzled veteran diver Frank McGuire who has never been able to build much of a relationship with his son, preferring instead to focus on his career as a cave diver. As his son Josh, Rhys Wakefield is serviceable and makes you believe in the angsty relationship that he shares with his old man. I thought Ioan Gruffudd was a better actor than this though. He is utterly abysmal in this film. Much of this is due to the accent he attempts to put on. I think it is meant to be American, but it is truly hideous and really distracting. It definitely takes a certain breed of person to invest your life in caving and especially cave diving. Not exactly my cup of tea. But the film brings to life this misfit gang and taps into some of the psychology behind why they choose to spend their time deep underground in scuba gear, living on the precipice of death. You can definitely get a sense of the attraction of being able to see something that no human being has ever been privileged enough to see before.
Sanctum looks incredible – both above and below ground this is a really well shot film. As a coherent well-acted narrative the returns are a little variable, but as far as tense, claustrophobic thrillers go, you can do a whole lot worse.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs