The ads show lots of water and one prominent name: James Cameron. So you’d be forgiven for inferring — as you are damn well expected to — that the Avatar auteur had something very important to do with Sanctum, and that the movie will build on Cameron’s fascination with the mysteries and terrors of dark waters that dates back to his first feature, Piranha Part II: The Spawning, blossomed in The Abyss, made him a mint in Titanic and was further explored in his marine documentaries Expedition: Bismarck, Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep.
In fact, Cameron served only as executive producer of Sanctum, which was produced and cowritten by his diving buddy and Bismarck colleague, Andrew Wight. Cameron is not the big fish in charge, just bait for the mass audience. As he Tweeted from a junket last week: “Right now it’s a #Sanctum promotion (I’m such a ho).”
Doing a favor for a friend by lending him your world-famous name can be an act of loyalty, not of prostitution. Further, Sanctum should thrum with action-film tension: it’s based on the true story of Wight’s 1988 expedition into a remote cave system, where a sudden storm sealed off the entrance and 15 people were trapped deep underground, amid craggy tunnels and perilous waters, with no option but to keep going lower in hopes of finding the source of a river that might carry them to safety. As the ads tease, “The only way out is down.”
Wight also assembled a talented, if not especially renowned, cast, including Richard Roxburgh (the sneering count who preys on Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!) as Frank, the dive leader, and Ioan Gruffudd (the crusading abolitionist in Amazing Grace and Tony Blair in Oliver Stone’s W.) as Carl, the expedition’s American financier.
Alas, all for nothing. Sanctum is a stinker, a horror movie without a visible monster, a deep dive into shallow characters who bray at one another in a harsh English-based dialect I’m told is Australian. Under the heavy hand of director Alister Grierson, the dynamics and technique of survival are reduced to a lot of carping between the no-nonsense, good-guy Aussies and the venal, treacherous Americans.
Worse yet, the film, using the 3-D technology that helped make Avatar such a gorgeous experience, lacks visual grandeur. The wonder of caving is expressed in the line, “Where else can you shine a light where no human’s been before?”, and we do catch glimpses of mammoth cave naves that might be as glorious as the interior of the Chartres cathedral; but the lights the divers brought are not nearly strong enough to illuminate the spectacle. What you get is mostly dark, and all wet.
For months, Frank has done preliminary exploration of the Esa’ala caves in Papua New Guinea. Now comes the real thing. His crew includes his teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), from whom he’s long been estranged; old hands Crazy George (Dan Wyllie) and Judes (Allison Cratchley); and Carl, who’s brought along his girlfriend Victoria (luscious Alice Parkinson), inexperienced in cave diving. Down they climb, through narrow crevices, and onward they swim — not to enjoy the view but to save their lives.
In many particulars, the film is similar to the 1951 sci-fi B movie Unknown World, about a team of scientists who journey a thousand miles below the surface to find a new home for humans fearful of The Bomb. But the explorers in Sanctum have no life-saving goal, scientific curiosity or, really, interest in documenting this virgin terrain. They’re there “because it’s there,” as Edmund Hillary said of reaching the top of Everest. He went up; they’re going down — into the dank nadir of their psyches, where “Panic’s the vulture that sits on your shoulder.
That vulture makes numerous appearances, as the unwary or unworthy are killed off by drowning, euthanasia, suicide or misadventure. It’s as if the bad karma of James Franco’s hiker in 127 Hours were infecting the entire group, and the only mystery is who’s going to get it next. (In the event the film is based on, all 15 cavers survived.) Halfway through, you’ll realize that all these deaths are a device to bring Frank and Josh together in a father-and-child reunion; by the end, they have no one else to harangue or hug.
The movie has one decent scene: Josh, separated from his company, is trapped in a cave flooded to the top, and must catch crucial breaths by sucking the air from small pockets in the cave ceiling. But that’s small reward for sitting through a drab, strident enterprise that doesn’t deserve the name James Cameron — or the word “movie.”