Films involving water and a stranded cast usually don’t end very well. Sanctum doesn’t pull any punches, and for fans of survival stories (or diving), it’s bound to draw you in.
Surprisingly, Sanctum is actually partially based on the personal experiences of co-writer Andrew Wight. Having led an expedition into a miles-long system of underwater caves (the Pannikin Plain Cave in Western Australia), Wight and friends found themselves trapped after a freak storm collapsed the entrance and prevented them from escaping.
To be honest, that’s Sanctum‘s entire premise, word-for-word, if you switch out out Wight and his water-happy (maybe not so happy now, I suppose) cohorts for a cast of divers and predictably stupid rich people that are trapped whilst exploring Esa’ala Cave in Papua New Guinea. Their only route involves going further down into the cave system, and hoping there’s a route that leads out.
The opening hour of the film moves slowly, and I mean really, really slowly, but that’s because most people going to see this film have seen Jurassic Park and other films where there’s an epic build-up and then everything goes to hell. With Sanctum, it’s similar – everyone arrives, everyone’s smiling or reliving old grudges, and then boom – disaster town, population: these guys. But the build-up feels about half an hour too long – with Jurassic Park it was unreal and epic, and while I can accept that the cave is astounding, as are many of the film’s visuals, it’s not quite “we stuck some dinosaurs in a theme park, enjoy.”
It’s also important to note that while James Cameron is involved, he is, and I need to make this clear, not the director. People looking for a film similar to his work will be, to some degree, disappointed. While his characters may often be a little cardboard-esque, Wight’s choice of stereotypes means you’re already sure of who’s going to die from the moment you see them. A tip to any screenwriters out there: putting a rich couple in with a bunch of hardcore nature or science experts is singling them out for lucky survival or complete destruction from the word “go.”
However, when we reach the point where they’re beginning to really struggle and people are starting to lose it (being trapped in a flooding Cave ‘o Death will do that to you), it starts to get a lot more interesting, and at one point, fairly chilling. It brings home an interesting point about the nature of human beings – put them in the right situation and most of them will tear each other limb from limb in order to survive.
Had they focused on that theme, and started the hits-the-fan portion of the narrative earlier, it could’ve been a little more captivating. I’m not entirely sure if Wight based old cave veteran Frank (played by the competent Richard Roxburgh, of Van Helsing and Hawke fame) on himself, but the checklist of stereotypes (rich people, nerdy/weird scientists and the Plucky Young Rebellious Son) makes it difficult for these actors to perform beyond their limitations.
As a film-goer, I’m actually very happy-go-lucky, and I’ll contentedly sit through a lot of films, but there was something about Sanctum that made me want to wade in and re-edit the film myself, and strip out some of the cast to focus on the few who really made an impact in the latter half of the film.
I do have to credit the visuals, however, as they’re definitely Cameron’s work, or at least come from his influence. Although the opening helicopter CGI and a couple of computerised long-shots felt a little dated and clunky, the caves themselves were absolutely incredible. Using these little seen, but extraordinary-looking caves was a genius move, because it kept everything in touch with reality. Nothing felt like it couldn’t happen, and they were careful to maintain realism throughout (desperately seeking air pockets on the roof of a completely submerged cave is a great example), and I felt that really added to my enjoyment of the latter half.
If you want to see a sound action film and you’re not well-acquainted with the classics, then you’ll probably enjoy the scene-setting, and even if you’re a veteran of the genre the second half will entertain. It’s definitely worth a watch for the scenery alone, and here’s hoping someone decides to delve into natural rock formations like these again, with a slightly better idea of who to throw into the cave and how to get them out again.