Sanctum (2011) review

Sanctum Poster

Sanctum was directed by Alister Grierson (Bloody Hell, Parer’s War), written by John Garvin (Deepsea Challenge, Titanic: 20 Years Later with James Cameron) and Andrew Wight (Extra Ordinary Barry, Aliens of the Deep), and stars Richard Roxburgh (Elvis, Rake), Rhys Wakefield (Bliss, Cardboard Boxer), Alice Parkinson (Bait, Fairytruth), Ioan Gruffudd (Harrow, 102 Dalmatians), Christopher James Baker (Keep Watching, Ned Kelly), Dan Wyllie (Love My Way, Go Karts), Nicole Downs (Mental, Cybergirl), Cramer Cain (Troppo, The Island of Doctor Moron), and Allison Cratchley (Water Rats, All Saints). It follows a group of cave divers as they attempt to survive whilst trapped in the least known and least accessible cave system in the world.

The Plot: A lot can be done with a film underwater. From the tight area should spring a tightly woven and breathless series of dives and finds, but Sanctum declines, deciding instead to offer redundancy and tired arguments with little narrative push until 35ish minutes in.

Plenty of caves have yet to be explored, and that’s where bankroller Carl (Gruffudd) comes in along with his girlfriend Vic (Parkinson). Tagging along is the son of spelunking/dive team leader Frank (a solid Roxburgh), Josh (Wakefield), and a sinking sense of redundancy in the narrative. Exploration doesn’t need to be justified in reality, but for the sake of Sanctum, it should’ve been, as the operation’s sole goal is to find where the Esa’ala caves reach the ocean. Frank and the rest of the team made up by JD (Baker), George (Wyllie), Liz (Downs), Luko (Cain) and Judes (Cratchley) are almost in the home stretch, but that takes a back seat once the newcomers reach the cave.

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Lurching the story forward again is an oncoming storm that threatens the expedition, forcing the ensemble to act fast or evacuate. Sanctum only truly begins to move once it hits, resulting in a chain of events that gets Judes killed and the way out blocked. Grierson is making a snapshot of an event here, so the rest of the film is dedicated to finding the way out, but it’s hard not to wish for a little more since there’s next to nothing else as far as the story goes. What’s supplied is functional at least, so there’s a hook, but a limited pull.

The Characters: From what’s seen and heard, all the characters except for one are well-trained and plenty experienced, which makes the hardheadedness and sheer idiocy of some of them all the more baffling.

Family dynamics are presented between Frank and Josh, and they’re the highlight of the feature’s characterization, even though they’re only decent at best. Frank is a man of extraordinary focus on his profession, devoting himself fully to mapping the world’s caves out of love and respect for what Earth has in store. This comes at the cost of his relationships with anyone not on his diving team, including Josh, who’s tired of being roped into risking himself for a goal he doesn’t care for, even though he’s effective like his father. The arc is obvious but acceptable, making the two into a duo for presumably the first time in a long time.

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Carl is a problem for Sanctum, as he’s a deep-pocketed justification for plenty of bad decisions without much to back them up. Vague mentions of National Geographic being interested in the journey are all that’s offered to justify his presence beyond being an adrenaline junky (there’s mention of an Everest climb), but he only comes down to everyone else’s level to make sure the job gets done, making the suggestion a stretch. He’s supposed to be a freewheeling eccentric, but Gruffudd overplays his hand and makes a bad character even worse. Vic tries to keep up with his act, but she’s sidelined not only by her boyfriend but by the film itself.

Frank’s team doesn’t receive high (water)marks, but they help round out the cast. JD and George feel necessary, as the former is the navigator of the robot-mounted camera and mapper of the tunnels and the latter is an assistant to Frank when needed. The rest don’t have much to them but feel authentic as divers if nothing else; the same can be said about everyone’s performances, except Gruffudd.

The Adventure: A mediocre plot and characterization tamper with the result, to be sure. However, one of the major reasons why Sanctum is still engaging is its fantastic sense of place and a handful of awesome discoveries.

Introductions to the cave and its surrounding location are very well done. The film starts on a crowded coast that’s quickly juxtaposed with miles and miles of roofed forest with nothing else in sight aside from the cave itself. An admittedly cheesy scene in which the depth of the tunnels is shown by a teammate’s computer model sells the depth effectively, as the forward base is only around halfway down the presumed system and already a hassle to get to. The rigorous task of getting there and staying for upwards of a month is solidly illustrated.

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Journeying through the caves proves to be a good justification for Sanctum’s flimsy narrative since the locations are so well-captured. With the base camp so far down, it only makes sense for the film to use a brief reprieve before clamping and opening its tunnels in various locations to give a different appearance to most of them. This works to great effect as each wrong turn and little mistake serves to heighten the risk while also providing a visual reward in every circumstance.

Natural events like the storm and cave-in that set the film off further stress the scenario by urging the traversal of Esa’ala while making it clear why it hadn’t yet been explored. Garvin and Wight’s script contains plenty of time spent getting through tough terrain and mounts it on top of the flood caused by the storm, creating a gauntlet feeling throughout Sanctum. It’s a constant stream of beauty and foreboding that makes the adventure a success.

The Technics: Being produced by James Cameron came with more than a few benefits, as Grierson was gifted with specialized cameras and equipment sourced from the noted diver. Unfortunately, this doesn’t guarantee a technically perfect film, but there’s plenty to praise.

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A lot of Sanctum was shot on location (in Australia instead of Papua New Guinea, but on location nonetheless), which makes the tense scenes of survival and discovery all the more investing. However, scenes shot on sets and stages designed by Nicholas McCallum (Upright, In a Savage Land) are no slouch either, making it a difficult task to tell them apart at all times; barring the forward base which looks uncanny.

Production and set design must’ve gotten more attention than the few composite shots and minor CGI elements. Helping in making the exploratory movie is the cinematography by Jules O’Loughlin (Black Sails, Joe vs. Carole). Few of the shots are truly inventive, but the simple decision to track the characters’ moves within close-quarters locations cannot be commended enough since the almost silent sights – which are mostly broken up by ominous but natural sounds – are far more investing than anything coming out of the actors’ mouths.

While never succeeding at creating a narrative, Sanctum is certainly watchable. A lot of that goes to the feeling of seeing something that’s never been uncovered, tied to a solid adventure and great technical details. Pay little attention to the characters and take in the focal point of the movie and you’ll have a decent time.

Sanctum is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital platforms via Universal.

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