Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Sanctum

Sanctum, the new underground action-thriller from executive producer James Cameron is working with a lot of different marketing angles: it’s inspired by true-life events, filmed with the same 3D cameras as Avatar, and shot on-location in one of the most breathtaking and dangerous places on Earth.

But do the various talking points come together for a cohesive and compelling cinematic thriller?

In case you’re unfamiliar with Sanctum, here’s the official synopsis:

The 3-D action-thriller Sanctum, from executive producer James Cameron, follows a team of underwater cave divers on a treacherous expedition to the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system on Earth. When a tropical storm forces them deep into the caverns, they must fight raging water, deadly terrain and creeping panic as they search for an unknown escape route to the sea.

Master diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) has explored the South Pacific’s Esa-ala Caves for months.  But when his exit is cut off in a flash flood, Frank’s team—including 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and financier Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd)—are forced to radically alter plans. With dwindling supplies, the crew must navigate an underwater labyrinth to make it out. Soon, they are confronted with the unavoidable question: Can they survive, or will they be trapped forever?

It’s no surprise that the buzz for Sanctum is most commonly associated with Cameron’s influence as executive producer rather than the film’s actual director, Alister Grierson – especially considering Grierson has only one other feature film to his name (Kokoda). But Cameron’s shadow looms large over Grierson’s movie – resulting in an extremely uneven final product: For every remarkable 3D shot or terrifying moment of real-life horror there’s a flat line of dialogue or cheesy plot device that drowns any chance the film will reach the emotional complexity either filmmaker intended.

Fans hoping for something more philosophical, like The Abyss 3D, will probably be disappointed. In general, Sanctum is a precautionary action tale that follows the same structure (and message) as every man vs. nature thriller pic that ever screened before it – except with better and more immersive visuals.

The characters are mostly caricatures: the brilliant adventurer/disconnected father Frank, the angry and impulsive son Josh, and the well-to-do/in-over-his-head financier, Carl. In some cases, despite being mostly one-note, the characters serve their basic purpose: the principles, Josh and Frank, have a likable dynamic and Crazy George, Frank’s right-hand-man (played by Dan Wyllie), provides the film with some much-needed yet subtle humor. Unfortunately, Gruffudd’s Carl is unforgivably flat and poorly written – his lines represent some of the most generic and unintentionally laughable dialogue moviegoers will see in a film this year.

As a result, the majority of the characters in Sanctum serve as meat for the figurative – and at one point literal – grinder. Their roles are established early on, with zero room for character growth – and audiences will not be surprised by who does and does not make it out of the cave in one piece.

Similarly, deaths are somewhat easy to foresee, lowering the effectiveness of well-crafted tension. In terms of character focus, Sanctum follows a horror-film structure to some extent: picking one person off at a time and forecasting the death with bad choices, overly insensitive behavior, or a callback to an earlier problem. How a character will meet their demise manages, at times, to still surprise (some of the deaths are pretty disturbing) but who is next to die is usually pretty clear ahead of time.

That said, what Sanctum is lacking in dynamic character development, it almost makes up for with chilling anxiety. The confines of the underground, and at times underwater, ratchet up the tension in even the most straightforward of scenes. The ever-present danger of the environment as well as the subsequent rules for survival are established early on – even before the freak storm sends the characters on a desperate life and death journey. Overall, Sanctum does a good job of riding this tension to the conclusion – while never breaking the rules that were established at the onset.

Mixed in with flat characters and tense action is an incredible 3D visual component – which is where Cameron’s interest in the project is most apparent. The 3D adds little to the more frantic action scenes, but the effect is beautifully showcased in many of the film’s incredible cave shots. Whether showcasing a grandiose underwater cathedral or looking down through a slim and jagged crack in a cave wall, the added depth is impressive. While there are certainly some CGI shots in Sanctum, it’s clear that Cameron’s 3D tech holds up in the real world as well as computer-generated ones, and lends further credibility to his claim that the format is here to stay.

Moviegoers who aren’t turned-off by limited character development will certainly enjoy Sanctum and the film rightly earns its place as a tense and engaging pre-spring thrill ride. However, there’s no doubt that a combination of poor dialogue, flat characters, and cheesy story mechanics will see many moviegoers laughing at inappropriate times, and overall the ending falls somewhat short of the emotional peak that Grierson was clearly working toward.

If you’re still trying to make up your mind, check out the trailer for Sanctum below:

Sanctum is now playing in wide release in Real 3D and IMAX 3D.

Follow us on Twitter @benkendrick and @screenrant and let us know what you thought of the film.

Our Rating:


3 out of 5
(Good)