Movie review: Alister Grierson's Sanctum, starring Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield and Ioan Gruffudd (with trailer video)

Sanctum’s optical gimmick is the least of its liabilities. A thoroughly rote, lackluster story with an unconvincing father-son conflict are the more pressing problems in this Australian production. The waterlogged script puts gruff master cave diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) at odds with his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), and anyone else who doesn’t appreciate his no-nonsense methods and assessments. (“She knew the risks!” is particularly indicative of his dialogue.) Among those eventually horrified by Frank’s icy attitude toward life and death, they include the smarmy benefactor played with stunning ineptitude by Ioan Gruffudd (he of the dreadful Fantastic Four series).

The few scenes — and they are in fact few — of claustrophobic suspense can’t compensate for Sanctum’s terrible line readings and Z-grade dialogue. It’s hard to fathom — and not a little bit depressing — that a line like, “We’ve got to get out of here. Now!” actually made it to the final script.

Sanctum is, ultimately, little more than a low-rent disaster flick that follows the basic template — quickly introducing a group of characters before dropping them in the middle of life-or-death circumstances. The characters are sketched so thinly, and their interactions so dull, you don’t care what happens to them. Which is a bit of a problem considering that the film is all about what happens to them.

Along with its shallow characterizations and juvenile, scatalogical humor, Sanctum dares to reach for emotional resonance. But the cheap spectacle of daddy and son working out their issues as they try to navigate “the mother of all caves” is offensive for its pandering, an obviously tacked-on element in a film that should have gone straight to DVD.

With James Cameron listed as executive producer, the square-jawed, cartoonish machismo and casual sadism of Sanctum comes as little surprise. What is a surprise is that this lazily written, lifeless film was deemed worthy of theatrical release.

The movie’s failure is no small accomplishment considering its premise: a cyclone traps a small group of underwater cave divers working through a cavern system in Papua New Guinea. With their exit route cut off, the team must work its way through the water and dark terrain, hoping to find an outlet to the ocean. It’s like The Poseidon Adventure — minus the quirky characters, panache and thrill-ride amusements.

Besides Cameron’s name, the marketing push behind Sanctum has focused on its use of the same 3D camera system used on Avatar. The results on the screen don’t justify the hype.

Sanctum’s 3D has the unintended effect of making scenes that should be breathtaking look like miniatures dropped into a diorama. It’s all very crisp — and very visually disorienting.

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