Review by Kristen Heine

Most disaster movies/action thrillers run a fairly predictable course: people find themselves in a perilous situation, tensions run high, people start dying, there’s an emotionally overwrought revelation, someone or a couple of people make it out alive, etc. Sanctum, from producer James Cameron, isn’t much different, with the exception that this all happens in 3D.

A small group of people—a world-renowned explorer (Richard Roxburgh), his son with a great big “dad was never there for me” chip on his shoulder (Rhys Wakefield), their wealthy backer (Ioan Gruffudd) and his fiance (Alice Parkinson), plus a variety of easily expendable others— ends up traversing a series of underground caves when their only exit becomes blocked due to a tropical cyclone.

As the perpetually at-odds father and son duo, Australian actors Richard Roxburgh and Rhys Wakefield give credible performances, despite having to chew dialogue like, “This cave will kill you in a heartbeat.”

Roxburgh’s character Frank guides the group through the waterlogged underground, and it’s Roxburgh himself who also leads the mostly forgettable cast. Roxburgh is a an easily transformable actor. Audiences have seen him transition from the prissy Duke in Moulin Rouge to the villain Moriarty in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. With his gruff demeanor, stern commands, and gravelly voice in Sanctum, it’s easy to see this guy as being able to get people out of all sorts of sticky situations.

Wakefield is still quite young—just 22— but does a more than capable job. His character, Josh, is likable, easy to relate to, headstrong without seeming obnoxious, and emotional without coming off as overly saccharine or whiny.

The most unfortunate bit of casting is Gruffudd (of Fantastic Four fame). While I suspect that we’re meant to dislike his entitled benefactor, Gruffudd plays the character in a way that’s loud, cartoonish, and overdrawn, rather than simply arrogant. Wondering whether or not he’ll be offed at some point is replaced by hoping it might happen sooner rather than later.

The relatively run-of-the-mill plot line (and characters) may be a bit of throwaway—five minutes in, anyone who’s ever seen a movie could tell which characters will be kaput by the time the end credits roll— but that doesn’t mean that Sanctum fails to deliver. The star of the movie isn’t the story, but what arises from the setting. People have a natural tendency to fear being trapped in small spaces, and the film, in a manner similar to the 2005 horror flick The Descent, capitalizes on that.

The use of 3D—something that most movies don’t really benefit from—lets the audience feel just as enclosed and alone as the characters. There are many a moment where the motley crew of explorers find themselves squeezing through passages that would prove impossible if you’d had just one extra doughnut for breakfast. There were even a few times when I found myself trying to catch my breath or make myself feel smaller.

Yet while the fear and desperation of the characters is palpable (and worth the price of admission), it’s unfortunate that Cameron and Co. don’t spend more time letting them (with the audience in tow) explore the environment. There are a few pretty shots—a helicopter flying over a lush green jungle and seemingly depthless cavern, divers floating in the midst of a pale blue flooded reservoir—but once we’re underground, it’s relatively dark and lifeless. Most shots are close-ups of the muscled actors in their wetsuits. If it’s the mysteriousness and magical quality of the caves that’s supposed to enthrall the characters and push them to do what they do, that never translates to the audience.

© Kristen Heine, 2011