Blu-Ray Review: ‘Sanctum’ Trudges Through a Watery Grave

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CHICAGO – If “Avatar” stood as a reminder of James Cameron’s undying popularity with audiences, “Sanctum” stands as proof that Cameron’s name alone can’t always sell a picture. Though the filmmaker merely served as executive producer of this murky thriller, the screen overflows with his signature tropes: underwater landscapes, 3D photography, hokey characters and pedestrian dialogue.

It nearly comes as a shock to discover that “Sanctum” was in fact not written and directed by the technologically ambitious, proudly commercial auteur. This sophomore directorial effort from Alister Grierson (“Kokoda”) is the sort of trash entertainment that undiscerning FEARnet subscribers may appreciate. The film prides itself on being devoid of the usual knee-jerk scares in cave-bound pictures, though it’s no less formulaic or artificial than any run-of-the-mill studio product. Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 2.5/5.0

Viewers don’t have to be connoisseurs of clichés in order to predict every twist and turn after paying careful attention to the opening scenes. Pretty, blonde Josh (Rhys Wakefield of “Home and Away”) is the teenage son of Frank (Richard Roxburgh), a world-class diver renowned for exploring uncharted territory underground. Animosity is apparent right off the bat between the two bullheaded men. After stepping off the plane at Esa’ala Cave, a labyrinthine cavern in the South Pacific, Josh’s jaded attitude is immediately justified by Frank, who’s prone to surly tirades every time his kid falls into his sightline. While Frank ominously broods Coleridge poems, his crew cracks wise nearly as often as the storm chasers in “Twister.” When one cocky character declares, “This cave isn’t going to beat me!” the audience starts counting the seconds until it inevitably does. Sure enough, a freak storm traps the explorers underground, forcing them to go deeper into the cave. In true “Titanic” fashion, the characters are treated to a digital outline of the cave early in the film, providing viewers with a blueprint of what to expect. Escape is within reach, but the real question becomes whether frayed nerves will cause each of the divers to self-destruct. Since it’s obvious from the get-go that Josh and Frank are inching toward a last-minute bonding session, suspense is limited by the sheer predictability of the formula.

Allison Cratchley and Richard Roxburgh star in Alister Grierson’s Sanctum.
Allison Cratchley and Richard Roxburgh star in Alister Grierson’s Sanctum.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

That being said, there are some undeniably tense sequences set within the bowels of the cave, as the divers weave through claustrophobic passageways, while straining to avoid getting their gear caught on the jagged edges of the rock walls. A few of the visuals pack a wallop, particularly the first shot of the cave entrance: a spectacular void in the middle of a dense forest. Yet the inherent dimness of the setting is an ill fit for 3D, which is already darkened by the haze of the 3D lenses. Even in 2D, the film is a rather dreary experience, with more drownings than a “Ten Commandments” remake. Roxburgh and his co-stars do their best to sell dialogue that shifts between expositional (“Carl likes to play by his own rules”), macho (“Oh, you’re about to get spanked!”) and starkly poetic (“We’re just bits of dust passing through”). The Duke in “Moulin Rouge” remains the crowning role of Roxburgh’s film career, and “Sanctum” does little to alter that fact (thankfully, the actor’s TV work has been far more deserving of his talents). For great cave-bound horror, see Neil Marshall’s “The Descent.” For a truly haunting film about entrapment underground, check out Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal.”

Sanctum was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 7, 2011.
Sanctum was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 7, 2011.
Photo credit: Universal Home Entertainment

“Sanctum’ is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English and Spanish audio tracks, and includes a digital copy of the film (it is also available in a Blu-Ray 3D combo pack). The BD-Live enabled disc includes a pocket BLU app recently enhanced for the iPad, as well as a solid array of special features. Grierson shares a commentary track with Wakefield and co-writer/producer Andrew Wight, an Australian filmmaker and underwater photographer who loosely based the story on his own experiences in the Nullarbor caves. While filming an expedition, Wight and his crew mates found themselves trapped underground after a sudden cyclone dumped “two years worth of rain in 25 minutes,” resulting in the collapse of the cave ceiling. This horrific event turned into a remarkable tale of survival, as all fifteen divers made it out alive. But alas, the filmmakers insist that “survival is not such a great story.” The sets were so noisy that nearly 90 percent of the dialogue had to be looped, which undoubtedly contributed to the awkwardness in the actors’ performances. One of the biggest challenges met by the cast was pulling off elaborate skills as if they had been doing them their whole life. There was also the challenge of logistics in scenes where multiple actors and their assistants were required to be underwater at the same time.
Cameron appears prominently in the 46-minute, 3-part documentary, in which he explains that it was his intention to prove with this film that 3D could be utilized effectively in the independent realm as well (the degree to which this film counts as “independent” is debatable at best). Behind-the-scenes footage provides an intriguing glance at the Warner soundstages where filming commenced, as well as the caves of Mt. Gambier, where footage was shot and seamlessly intertwined with the handcrafted backdrops. While performing a stunt, Wakefield got a gash on his arm that had to constantly be reapplied for continuity purposes. There are some interesting descriptions of underwater sensations, such as the danger of vertigo due to the clarity of the water. Less impressive are nine minutes of deleted scenes that manage to make the characters appear even more inane and stereotypical. What nearly redeems this disc is the inclusion of Wight’s 1988 documentary, “Nullarbor Dreaming,” which offers a fascinating glimpse at the real-life ill-fated expedition. Though the outcome is decidedly less bleak, the footage is more unsettling than anything in “Sanctum,” particularly the shot of the crew’s helmet lights trembling in the pitch darkness as an avalanche echoes throughout the cave.

‘Sanctum’ is released by Universal Home Entertainment and stars Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wyllie, Christopher Baker, Nicole Downs and Allison Cratchley. It was written by John Garvin and Andrew Wight and directed by Alister Grierson. It was released on June 7, 2011. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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