Sanctum 3D (2011)

Never go caving. That’s the lesson Hollywood tells us; from The Descent to The Cavern we’ve witnessed dozens of adventurers clamber down into the darkness to never return. If these films had already made us afraid to step into the likes of Wookey Hole then Sanctum 3D ensures we wouldn’t dare enter the gift shop, not even for a smart-looking Wookey Hole pirate hat.

Sanctum 3D is an impressive production. It is shot beautifully throughout; it is awe-inspiring and occasionally very frightening in its magnitude. Sadly, however, the story fails to match the amazing production values; the script is perfunctory, the pacing inconsistent and the plot distinctly lacking. It is an enjoyable fare that is worryingly dull in places.

“Inspired by true events” movies always raise a giggle, as it could mean anything. In this case it is very loosely based on the experiences of co-writer Andrew Wight, who became trapped in underwater caves when a storm hit. Sanctum is very much about this, but naturally the ante is significantly upped to ensure every horrible cave-diving accident happens to our luckless characters.

World reknowned cave diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) has spent months carefully mapping the inside of the Esa-ala Caves in the South Pacific, one of the last unexplored places on Earth. His goal is to find the underground river route that leads out to sea. His mission is funded by impatient thrill-seeker and entrepreneur Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), who brings along his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and McGuire’s flaky son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) to help witness the final push.

The set up is not vastly original; giving us the characters of a troubled father-son relationship, an irritating businessman, his inexperienced girlfriend and some reaper fodder additional characters who may-as-well have “dead” carved onto their foreheads. Luckily the majority of the acting deflects the expectedly trite scripting, and there are surprisingly decent turns from Rhys Wakefield and Richard Roxburgh, whose relationship seems believable even if those around them seem clichéd and expected. Wakefield especially impresses in a role that actor/carpenter Sam Worthington would’ve chiseled into wood immediately; Wakefield is likeable and sympathetic and one of the only reasons to keep watching the film into its final act.

Once the characters are gathered together in the bowels of the Earth, disaster strikes. A fast-growing cyclone has moved inland and the caves quickly begin filling with water. As the cavers desperately attempt to escape, the only way out is blocked; sealing them inside a fast-flooding cave system with no known exit. With limited resources and no chance of rescue, they decide to push forward and find the river to the sea… at whatever cost.

Sanctum ticks every clichéd “stuck underground” box, from panicked claustrophobia and falling face-first onto rocks to torches breaking and one idiot going completely bat-shit mental. Nothing hugely surprises in Sanctum, although there are a couple of moments that really stun and amaze; this is all about location and scale and it creates a huge and memorable impact for the most part, albeit visually only. The blood effects are superb, with one surprising and very disturbing face-ripped-open-by-rocks moment; Sanctum is brutal when it has to be.

The major problem with Sanctum is its pacing; once they’re trapped underground and desperate to locate an exit, you expect the pace to rocket you through set-piece after set-piece until the final moments. Sadly director Alister Grierson and first time screenwriters Andrew Wight and John Garvin keep stopping the action and pace for extended dialogue scenes which are often repetitive and hugely forgettable. Perhaps the sitting-and-resting moments are based on real events, but it’s kills the flow of the piece completely. For a film of this type, being boring is an absolute sin, and one Sanctum commits on a number of occasions.

Although available in disgustingly unwatchable 2D in some backward “selected cinemas”, Sanctum is made for 3D and for once it is genuinely worth paying extra for. Presumably because of James Cameron’s producing influence, the 3D is superb throughout and genuinely gives a sense of depth, which is especially powerful in something featuring cathedral sized caves and holes that could house a sizeable Exogorth (yes, punch the geek in the face). There are occasions where the 3D is startlingly obvious and strangely makes the people seem flat and 2D, but overall it shows how awesome 3D can be when done correctly.

Sanctum is more style than substance; it is stunning in places, exciting in many, brutal in a couple and certainly entertaining. It also fails on a number of levels with a poor script, some disjointed pacing and an awkward “character goes bonkers” moment. Perhaps worth watching simply for the excellent 3D, Sanctum is an interesting but mostly uninspired horror / thriller.

Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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