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Sanctum 3D IMAX (2011)

February 6, 2011

written by: John Garvin & Andrew Wight
produced by: Ben Browning, James Cameron, Leesa Kahn, Ryan Kavanaugh, Michael Maher, Brett Popplewell, Peter Rawlinson, Aaron Ryder & Andrew Wight 
directed by: Alister Grierson 
rated R (for language, some violence and disturbing images)
109 min.
U.S. release date: February 4, 2011
If you just went by the TV spots or the ads for this underwater cave diving thriller, you’d have thought that James Cameron directed it. If that were the case, the world would’ve heard a lot more about this film for the past year. And I doubt it would have a Super Bowl weekend release date. Just imagine the build-up there would be if this were to be his follow-up to “Avatar”, knowing full well how much Cameron loves to stroke his own ego. He was involved though, serving executive producer and allowing the filmmakers to utilize the 3D technology he helped create. It’s doubtful that this claustrophobic experience would’ve surfaced to theaters (let alone in IMAX 3D), if not for Cameron’s name being attached to it.
Universal Pictures and Relativity Media are no dummies though. By actually inserting video of Cameron talking up the film into some of the trailers of the movie, they know that anyone who knows absolutely nothing about it will now think that he directed it. That its his baby. Seeing how much of a thrill-junky Cameron is, it would make sense too for him to tell a story inspired by true events about a group of obsessed thrill-seekers. Besides the spectacular sound and vision of it all, the only sign of Cameron that is apparent in “Sanctum” is the use of weak dialogue coming out of regurgitated characters. Being aware of this in advance helps prepare a viewer before they plunge blindly where many others have gone before. 
The story drops us in Papua New Guinea, where a surfer-looking teen named Josh (Rhys Wakefield), greets a newly-arrived couple. They are billionaire playboy Carl (Ioan Grufford, “Fantastic Four”) and his adventurous girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), who have come to embrace a new exploration. Carl is a key financier of a project headed by Josh’s father, obsessed expert diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh, “Moulin Rouge”), who is determined to discover the South Pacific’s last untouched areas, the Esa-ala Caves, not far from the Solomon Sea. The motivation and appeal for these high-tech equipped adventurers is to seek and touch areas of the planet “unseen by mankind”. Yet such endeavors always have their blind spots.
Such is the case when Frank and his crew overlook the protagonist of the story, a looming tropical storm that transforms into a powerful cyclone. While the group is deep within the labyrinth of caves, heavy rains pour from above. It doesn’t take long for forceful water to trap the crew, leaving them low on oxygen and in a precarious position among such treacherous terrain. Not only must they fight through the immovable elements of nature, but the must deal with the limits of the human psyche (both experienced and incompetent) pushed to the limits of control and panic. 

Filmed at the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia, it comes as no surprise that the majority of the cast are native to Australia or New Zealand. This includes director Alister Grierson, who was directing to the set of “Avatar” and later was selected to helm this film and given permission to use Cameron’s Fusion Camera System.  Grierson’s only previous feature film is “Kokoda”, a film also produced by Leesa Kahn, one of this film’s many producers, about Aussie troops fighting off the Japanese in WWII (similar to “Gallipoli” another Australian war film), that is probably only familiar to fellow Aussies. Actually, that film sounds more interesting than what “Sanctum” turns out to be, but it’s ironic that both are based on true events.
Speaking of that, I have to admit I sighed considerably when that text “inspired by true events” appeared on the screen before the movie started. I wasn’t expected to take any of which I was about to see seriously, let alone consider it as real. Apparently, on of the writer’s Andrew Wight, was the only survivor of a near-death experience in some caves underneath the Southern Australian flatlands.
That’s all fine but in retrospect I can’t help but wonder where exactly fact and fiction was watered-down into Hollywood cliché. Did both stubborn female characters really succumb to death so easily? One hid her increasing state of panic while the other hid her unqualified presence there. Was the socially inept Frank really an awful father, dismissing his “rebellious”son at every turn? Of course, we must have the obligatory “I’m so proud of you son” scene at the end, where the son realizes that maybe his dad wasn’t such a jerk, after all. If that really happened, at one point do you think all that would make a worthy film?

Grierson establishes some captivating visuals early on, but overall he’s not delivering a story that is anything but groundbreaking. This is mainly due to the one-note characterization of the crew who whine, cry, blame, and complain a bit too often. It’s understandable that there would be a considerable mount of space madness in such confined conditions with such dire stakes, but it fast comes across as a repetitive rinse and repeat cycle. Sadly, the same can be said for the actors here. Roxburgh is extremely limited as the tyrannical by-the-book leader and Grufford’s only arc is from cardboard cut-out to cartoonish hysterics. Honestly though, I didn’t expect any thespian moments in a movie that appropriately never relents from its survival mode.
This is the first of many movies this year planned for optimum viewing in 3D IMAX. Neither of them is optimal or essential. I can deal with IMAX I guess, but 3D really has to win me over. The challenge for 3D in this film is the close quarters of the location. For an atmosphere that is genuinely dark and tight, the 3D does a good job at presenting a clarity and depth that brings the images right to the audience. Overall, it’s not a bad 3D experience. It doesn’t dim what we see and isn’t unnecessarily in your face. The sound and size of the IMAX experience is quite interactive, at times I felt it in my seat. I don’t know if that’s for everyone but I would wager that the combination of 3D and IMAX would be the best way to see “Sanctum”. 
Everyone is familiar with this genre, stubborn humans vs. nature, knows full-well the outcome. You can expect the following: a steady death count of thinly realized characters, agonizing plot devices that will play an obvious part in the plot later on, and some impressive set pieces. That’s pretty much what you get here. Anyone disappointed in the outcome must have forgotten about those expectations. Many critics will find the plot and dialogue painfully mediocre, but I believe viewers should keep in mind what’s in store for them with certain films.
For a more chilling and horrifying center-of-the-earth thriller, you’d do well to check out Neil Marshall’s exceptional “The Descent” which offers well-established characters bumping into some freaky nocturnal creatures. With a film like this, it’s all about grim deaths, suspenseful situations and cavernous thrills. How folks can complain about groan-worthy dialogue and stereotypical characterization in a movie like this is beyond me. I have no clue what they were expecting, but since as I got what the movie was going for….I can’t say I was disappointed or bored.

RATING:  **1/2



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