By Brian Lafferty
February 4, 2011 (San Diego) – A couple of months ago I came across a National Geographic article that covered underwater cave diving. As with any National Geographic publication, the photographs were stunning and the article offered a lot of insight into this activity. When I learned of Sanctum, I became excited, especially when I saw James Cameron’s name attached to the production.
The images in Sanctum are stunning but in the end that National Geographic article provided far more insight on the subject, and more wonder and thrills, than anything in this film.
The 3D in Sanctum is clunky and distracting, particularly in close-ups and medium shots. It makes the actors and their movements look unnatural. The cave doesn’t look any grander than if it was in 2D.
Sanctum also serves as a personal milestone: It is the first film I have seen that has made me dislike seeing 3D movies. Some critics say the 3D is better used than in most movies but I disagree. Sanctum is so bad, and the extra dimension so gimmicky and useless, that it has empowered me to feel no shame in admitting I was wrong about liking 3D.
The story was inspired by a similar incident involving one of the screenwriters. In this film, a team of underwater cave divers becomes trapped inside a flooding unexplored underground cavern. They must navigate the unexplored system or drown.
The movie borrows heavily from two films. Halfway into the picture I recalled, with some fondness, Neil Marshall’s The Descent, which depicted a caving expedition involving several ladies. I mention the word “some” because I found only the first half thrilling, well-acted, and well-directed. That was before the movie disintegrated into a fully clichéd “women in peril” horror film with lots of blood as well as having creatures jumping out from the screen. The Poseidon Adventure (the original 1972 version) is the second. Sanctum combines and plagiarizes these two stories without offering anything unique or any genuine suspense of its own.
Over time the promising concept falls prey to disaster movie clichés. One by one the characters die, some in very unpleasant ways. The worst offender is Victoria’s death in which her hair gets caught on a carabiner, cuts it off, and falls to her watery death. The screenwriters and filmmakers tried to create a powerful scene. However, the end result is an excruciating, manipulative, wholly unpleasant, and rather sickening series of shots in which she screams in agony while we get close-ups of her scalp being ripped from her skull.
The deaths in The Poseidon Adventure, although tragic, were not graphic. They were shocking but the film didn’t linger on them. Sanctum revels in its violence and deaths.
We also get several scenes in which one character clutches a dying character while saying tearful goodbyes.
Character development is another casualty. None of the characters are believable and are one-dimensional to the point of boredom. Whatever conflict there is feels phony. The first half of The Descent is suspenseful because the characters are three-dimensional and smart. With Sanctum, I never knew anything about these characters. They exist only to perish one by one.
The one thing the filmmakers do get right is the visuals, albeit marred slightly by the 3D. The caves are beautifully shot and are majestic to the point of overpowering the actors. The caves have more dimensions and than all of the characters combined and it doesn’t even need the 3D to accomplish that.