When a group of cave divers gets stuck a mile down in Papua New Guinea's Esa'ala Cave, there are no mutated predators to speak of. Danger instead arises from nature and the unstable divers hell-bent on survival in this Australian thriller. Based on the experiences of one of its writers, Sanctum employs producer James Cameron's expertise to capture scenes of narrow escape inside the belly of the cave but sees its impact lessened by a blundering script and weak acting.
Millionaire-adventurer Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd, Mr. Fantanstic in Fantastic Four) bankrolls an expedition led by famed explorer Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh, Dracula in Van Helsing) into Esa'ala Cave, where divers hope to discover a route to the nearby Solomon Sea. Also on the team are Frank's teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and longtime friend George (Daniel Wyllie), as well as Carl's girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson). When an additional member drowns in an accident, the team tries to return to the surface, but a cyclone floods the main entrance to the cave.
Unlike the fanciful but very effective The Descent, Sanctum does not feature flesh-eating cave dwellers lurking in every shadow. The film's antagonist is the cave itself, and Mother Nature, who is one angry bitch. With their escape route impassible due to a wall of rushing water, the divers descend further into the bowels of Esa'ala to find another way out. Executive produced by Cameron, who shot underwater for Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss, Sanctum is most effective when the players aren't talking. The combination of director Alister Grierson's staging and Cameron's keen eye for underwater filming results in some nail-biting suspense. With every rock ripe to crush a skull and every crevice open to break an arm, Sanctum at times had me watching through my hands.
The film's big emotional conflict involves Josh and Frank. Josh finds Frank's lifelong obsession with cave diving suffocating and selfish, and accuses him of needlessly putting the lives of others at risk. At one point in the film, Frank has a nicely written speech about how cave diving is the only thing he has done well in his life. He chides his son for being na´ve and hints that actions Josh took earlier in the film may have resulted in the loss of lives. Pieces of this conflict are interesting, but much of it is overly theatrical. Nothing brings together family like impending death, but Sanctum foolishly glosses over real threats like hypothermia and decompression sickness to belabor the family squabbling.
The performances also go south about as quickly as the rapidly derailing expedition. The script for Sanctum feels like it came from an outline: "People stuck in cave. Must escape from scary darkness." The dialogue becomes more banal as divers start dying. Roxburgh gives Frank a parodiable Outback snarl, and Gruffudd wavers between method overacting in character and delivering howlingly awful readings ripe for RiffTrax. The film's emotional climax practically begs the actors to arrive in top form. Unfortunately, the performances are awful when needed the most.
Despite its less-than-delicate application, Sanctum is often effective as a claustrophobic thriller. Filled with beautiful underwater photography, Sanctum benefits from Cameron's guidance and some excellent real and constructed sets. Sanctum is also a film that lacks the script and performances needed for glue to hold the action sequences together. It's clear the filmmakers concentrated on these and not much else.
Universal presents Sanctum on DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer made uneven by the film's difficult locations. The whole affair has a digital appearance, complete with the smeary pans that plague digital photography. Although it was partially shot in 3D with equipment Cameron developed for Avatar, Sanctum loses the extra dimension on DVD. Blacks are problematic and range from crushing to washed out and grey. Low-light scenes are robbed of detail and color saturation, though colors tend to pop in well-lit scenes. Texture is inconsistent, as the film often has the aforementioned waxy, digital appearance, and with increased softness comes decreased detail. I suspect noise reduction was used at some point in the filmmaking process, and I noticed a few areas of blocky grain, as well as compression artifacts and some nasty shimmer in the opening outdoor sequences. Though somewhat muted, skin tones appear natural, and I doubt much digital manipulation occurred during the film's transfer to DVD. All this makes the transfer sound pretty bad, but the issues really do stem from the way Sanctum was filmed.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack also suffers because of the film's environment. Although understandable, dialogue occasionally sounds slight and muffled; lost amid the cavernous surroundings. The surrounds are quite active during the underwater scenes or when water is rushing around the actors, but I wouldn't say the sound field is especially well realized. Surround effects are either there or they're not, there's not much middle ground. The film's score is perhaps best preserved, but it failed to give my subwoofer much to rumble about. Spanish 5.1 and Descriptive Video Service tracks are also available, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
Bucking the recent trend of including only fluffy, EPK-style extras, Universal provides Sanctum with a nice assortment of bonuses on DVD. The feature-length commentary from Director Alister Grierson, actor Rhys Wakefield and co-writer/producer Andrew Wight is informative, and I enjoyed hearing about the film's genesis from Wight's harrowing experience. Even better is Sanctum: The Real Story (46:43), an excellent, three-part making-of documentary that chronicles the entire filmmaking process. Filled with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew, this is one of the better documentaries for a recent release that I've seen. Also included are some deleted scenes (9:23) that, while interesting to watch, don't add much to the final film.
The struggle for survival in a grossly inhospitable environment can be fascinating. The cave divers caught below the surface in Sanctum must fight their surroundings and each other to survive in a cave personified as reluctant to let its visitors leave. Executive producer James Cameron brings his underwater filming experience aboard to capture some stunning images inside the cave, and there are several intense action sequences. Sanctum is not completely successful, however, because its script and performances quickly unravel. Universal's DVD features uneven but faithful picture and sound and some nice extras. The curious should rent it first because the film's replay value is questionable, but for fans, Sanctum is Recommended.