Review: Alister Grierson's Sanctum (2011)

Alister Grierson's Sanctum (2011)
6 10

Look out for The Arrow's review of Sanctum tomorrow!

PLOT: When a tropical storm forces them deep into the caverns, a group of cave-divers (including a bickering father and son, a rich jerk and his panicky girlfriend) find they must fight raging water, deadly terrain and creeping panic as they search for an unknown escape route to the sea.

REVIEW: When I first caught the trailers for Alister Greirson's SANCTUM, it struck me as THE DESCENT - sans monsters - meets THE ABYSS. Now, having seen it, I discover I was not far off: It contains the claustrophobic anxiety of the former with the waterlogged schmaltz of the latter. Thanks to that combination, you'll be biting your nails and rolling your eyes in equal measure during SANCTUM.

The story breaks down relatively easily: some thrill-seeking adventurers, led by the legendary Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh, usually a creep in movies like MOULIN ROUGE and VAN HELSING), discover an untouched cave system somewhere in the South Pacific. But when a massive storm unexpectedly hits topside (well, they expected it, it just comes earlier than planned), the team finds themselves trapped miles underground with no way out. They'll have to swim, crawl and traverse their way through the mysterious and deadly caverns and pray they find a way out.

Much is being made of James Cameron's involvement in SANCTUM as producer, as well as the usage of the 3D technology he helped forge for AVATAR. The King of the World's influence is certainly felt: SANCTUM has all the straight-faced sincerity and life-affirming danger you could want out of a Cameron project - without the epic scale or grandeur. On the technical side, the 3D here is good without being remarkable. There are several sequences, most of them set underwater, where real depth can be appreciated. Still, I can't say it's comparable to the stunning achievement AVATAR clearly was.

The characters come cut from the Cameron cloth too: Frank McGuire is the tough, take-no-shit team-leader with a soft spot for his crew. His passion for his expeditions has unfortunately eclipsed everything else in his life, including his family. His right-hand man, "Crazy" George (Dan Wyllie, the slimy lawyer in ANIMAL KINGDOM), is a scruffy tech-geek with a goofy disposition. Frank's "boss" (Ioan Gruffudd, Reed Richards in FANTASTIC FOUR) is a rich schmuck in over his head; predictably, when the going gets really tough, he breaks down and looks after his own ass. The rich prick has an obnoxious girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) who lacks the experience of the others, hence she's prone to panicky whining. And, of course, there's Frank's son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), a reluctant but capable explorer who has a strained relationship with his pop at the beginning, but who we all know will come to respect and understand the old man by the film's end.

The exposition-heavy script by John Garvin and Andrew Wight (supposedly based on a real-life experience the latter endured) most certainly won't get any Oscar consideration next year; it's filled with the most basic of cliches and platitudes (you can expect a lot of lines like "You can do this because you MUST do this!"). However, as this is designed to be a tense thriller that depends on its set-pieces, one can forgive the by-the-numbers effort on the screenplay's part. There's no doubt that SANCTUM is taught and dramatic when the action kicks in and the predicament appears helpless. Grierson is adept at putting us in the shoes of the team, especially when drowning seems imminent. This isn't the movie for those of you who are claustrophobic and fearful of the water, naturally. Just the sight of a person struggling to hold their breath underwater is enough to make me uncomfortable, and SANCTUM has plenty such moments. An unnerving sequence when one of the team gets stuck in a hairy situation - quite literally - is a major highlight.

The action certainly trumps the emotion in SANCTUM, and if you're okay with that in a film that certainly attempts to get it the other way around, then you'll have an enjoyable, if forgettable, time at the movies.

Extra Tidbit: SANCTUM opens on FEBRUARY 4th.



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