“Sanctum” is a James Cameron-produced 3D-a-rama set, not in outer space, but in a world almost as strange. Deep inside a cave, a place one of the characters says is so remote, “there are no rescues down here, only body recoveries.”
The movie follows a group of underwater cave divers—including the expert adventurist (Richard Roxburgh), his rebellious son (Rhys Wakefield), a rich hobbyist (Ioan Gruffudd, a dead ringer for the Food Network’s Surreal Gourmet Bob Bloomer) and a number of other disposable cavers—as they explore a cave system in Papua New Guinea. Their dangerous mission becomes even more life threatening when a sudden storm floods the system, blocking their most obvious exit. The only other way out is a dangerous route downward toward the ocean. Tack on a father and son story, some “Kubla Khan” references and a claustrophobic scene or two and you have a the kind of movie that gets released in February.
“Sanctum” is my first seatbelt movie of the year. It’s a movie so awful in almost every way I thought I might need a seatbelt to keep me in my chair for the whole thing.
Where to start? The dialogue is so wooden I swear I saw woodpeckers circling the theatre. At one point Carl (Gruffudd) says about Victoria (Alice Parkinson), “she’s strong like bull, but smart like tractor.” When she replies, sarcastically, “How original,” it’s unclear who she is talking to, Carl or the screenwriters.
It’s as if the screenwriters felt that the 3D would pick up the slack for the lack of story, interesting characters or good dialogue. They were wrong. Some of the movie is spectacular looking, but as the movie wears on, and it turns into a kind of “Poseidon Adventure” escape movie—but without the boat—and the portable flashlights they all carrying start to fade the 3D becomes murky and less pretty.
“Sanctum,” I think, is a good example of why 3D isn’t the great savior that Hollywood seems to think it is. Pretty pictures alone don’t make a great movie. They can help, but if you just want pretty pictures, go to a gallery. Movies are about the total package.
Don’t be fooled by James Cameron’s name in the credits. “Sanctum” is no “Avatar.”
In the new 3-D film Sanctum, a group of cave divers get their spelunk on in the least accessible cave system on Earth. Down deep they encounter problems and end up in a fight for their lives.
If that synopsis sounds familiar, it should. Most cave movies—and yes, that is a bona fide genre—have very similar plots.
Here’s the typical rundown: A group of people jump into a giant hole and then really bad things happen. Usually at least one of the characters says, “It’s so deep… you can’t even see the bottom” just before they disappear forever.
Why do we keep coming back for more—and why do people like Sanctum producer James Cameron keep making these movies? I think it’s because they’re about the most basic primal feelings of all— claustrophobia, fear of the dark and the unknown. What could be scarier than a giant hole with who-knows-what living in it?
The most frightening giant cave movie has to be The Descent, a 2005 scary spelunker that features the second most used line in cave diving flicks: “No one’s ever been down here before.” The film focuses on six women trapped in an Appalachian Mountains cave system. That’s scary. Even scarier are the pasty humanoid creatures that start hunting them. Horror website Bloody Disgusting ranked it as one of the top horror films of the decade and Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars.
A sequel, imaginatively titled The Descent: Part 2, came four years later. Although it was advertised as being “deeper and darker” than the original, it isn’t nearly as bloodcurdling.
2005 was a big year for creepy cave movies. The Cave, starring Piper Perabo and Cole Hauser as cavers who are stalked by bloodthirsty creatures, may have a plot about original as the movie’s name, but it does offer some genuinely terrifying moments.
If the subterranean creepy crawlers of The Cave (or others like What Waits Below or WithIn) aren’t for you, then perhaps the 3-D thrills of Cave of Forgotten Dreams will appeal. In this breathtaking documentary, director Werner Herzog explores the Chauvet caves of Southern France, literally a 33,000-year-old art gallery containing 400 Palaeolithic cave paintings. The legendarily loopy German filmmaker studies the drawings, made to replicate the movement of animals, and asks, “Is it a kind of proto-cinema?” It’s a wild, gripping look at life beneath the surface.