The first movie I saw in 3D was Avatar – well, actually the first one was Jaws 3 but the least said about that the better. So seeing a film advertised as ‘James Cameron Presents Sanctum 3D’ was a sure way to get me sat on a seat, goggled. As was obviously the intention. But even better than that, James Cameron isn’t just associated very successfully with 3D he is also famous for his fascination with the depths – of sea and space. The Abyss is one of those films I love the most, and not just because it has Ed Harris in it. James Cameron is a pioneer explorer of deep oceans. He has financed and dived in small submersibles to the wreck of the Titanic. He clearly knows a thing or two about claustrophobia then, as well. He can certainly tell a good story.
So, with hopes high (if a little bit dented by some iffy reviews), I sat down in a near empty cinema to see Sanctum 3D.
Sanctum tells the tale of a group of cavers in Papua New Guinea who descend and dive deep within the most fabulous sinkhole. The sinkhole becomes a complex of unexplored caves and tunnels, and the goal is to find a path to the sea. The leader, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), pushes on a group that includes his old friend George (Dan Wyllie), his diving partner Judes (Allison Cratchley) and his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), who resents his dad as only a movie son can. The man with the money is Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) who, as the film begins, brings his new girl – that he met on Everest – Victoria (Alice Parkinson) into the caves.
Then, courtesy of a cyclone but compounded by some angst and attitude, it all goes badly wrong. The cave complex begins to flood and the race is on to find that elusive way out to the sea before air and light runs out. And before they kill each other, of course.
If you went in to Sanctum expecting another Avatar you would be disappointed. Cameron is not the writer and he is not the director (Alister Grierson has that honour) but what he has ensured as producer is that this film is visually splendid. The 3D hasn’t been painted on afterwards. Despite the dark and the confinement, the 3D adds layers of light and intense depth and brings the claustrophobia into the theatre. I held my breath through many a scene and when a character took a desperately needed breath, so did I. Quite extraordinary, really.
There are issues with Sanctum. Chief among them is the dialogue, which in places is truly appalling. There were times when I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. ‘What could possibly go wrong, diving in caves?’ – this from Victoria, who may have climbed Everest but possibly not very far. Almost every word that comes from Frank’s mouth could have been taken from a Disaster Movie Clichés guide, 10th edition. ‘Panic is a vulture that sits on your shoulder’ is a fine example and there were many more.
It is also likely that you’ll be reminded of many a movie when you watch Sanctum. Vertical Limit was a prime example for me – think entrepreneur with loads of money who does everything he can to survive. And then there’s the Poseidon Adventure, although Frank is no Reverend Scott. What drives Sanctum on is one of the oldest tropes of disaster movies – a bad father-son relationship that heals under the greatest imaginable stress while inconsequential characters fall by the wayside. And, because Victoria refuses to put on a wetsuit taken from the body of a corpse (how fussy), she beats off hypothermia by taking off her clothes.
It’s easy to have a laugh at Sanctum 3D, it’s asking for it. Nevertheless, the claustrophobic scenes are incredible and made me sink into my seat and gasp for air. The sheer scale of the task that the group must overcome to escape is horrifying and it goes on and on as they face more squeeze-throughs, more cathedrals of rock, more churning cauldrons of water and stone. It’s relentless. And I was gripped by it.
But I could have watched it with the sound off.