Sanctum full movie review - Life's abyss
And then you dive
When Poltergeist was released in 1982 there were a lot of assumptions from certain quarters that the credited director Tobe Hooper was not actually the real director, and that ownership of the picture actually belonged to the Executive Producer Steven Spielberg.
One look at Poltergeist and it's easy to see why some would think that. If you actually subscribe to the idea of the 'auteur' theory, then it's obvious Spielberg's stamp is on every frame. What's that got to do with Sanctum? A lot actually?
In 1989 James Cameron made the brilliant and criminally underrated movie 'The Abyss'. It was met by mixed reviews, despite being that rare animal in Hollywood: an original story. It was also a slow burner of a film, taking its time to rev up before cutting loose and racking up the tension - kind of like a lot of Cameron's films, actually. We have a similar scenario here: an underwater epic that's very Cameronesque in every sense of the word? except it's directed by someone else? a director by the name of Alister Grierson. So how much of the movie can be attributed to James and how much of it is Alister's? It's anyone's guess. But like the aforementioned Poltergeist, it's got the Cameron branding iron on every frame.
Sanctum tells the gripping story (apparently 'based' on real events - somewhat loosely one would imagine) of a group of cave explorers led by veteran adventurer Frank (Richard Roxburgh) who becomes stranded in a deep network of caves after a tsunami strikes the surface. Unfortunately for them, their surroundings become engulfed by the deluge of water from the jungle above, forcing them to flee from the rapidly rising waters and try to make their way to where the caves exit to the ocean. Decisions that were made earlier with perhaps a lot less foresight than there should have been comes back to haunt them... Ten fold? Worse for Frank, his estranged son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) is also along for the expedition, putting additional stress and even more guilt on him, but it makes him even more determined to guide everyone to safety. As you can imagine their efforts don't go entirely to plan and everything goes pear shaped after that.
It's fair to say Sanctum take its time setting up the story and the characters. For a moment you wonder where it's all going? then something happens that's along the lines of a certain famous scene in 'The Abyss' and? you're immediately sucked into the story from that point onwards. The movie reels you in, drags you down and very rarely lets you up for air. The slow build is necessary when you see what comes after it: it's virtually one crisis after another after another with Director Grierson doing a great job ratcheting up the tension to stunning levels. Just when you think it can't get any worse for the protagonists, some other dastardly thing happens to them. It's great filmmaking and it's sustained for the entire running time. You're on the edge of your seat right to the very end.
The entire cast is very good, but Richard Roxburgh really stands out. At first he's not really too likable and maybe even a bit too gritty and steely, but once that veneer is cracked, you get to really like the guy. In fact it's the entire father-son thing that gives this movie such gravitas. Without it, it would be just another 'lost in caves' flick. Ioan Gruffudd, last seen working for Cameron in Titanic, plays a totally different beast here and does a sort of a comic book turn, but adds something else for the cast to go up against besides the deadly caverns.
The films says a lot about the human spirit and what happens to it when we find ourselves cornered like animals in life or death scenarios. It ably gets across how savage we are capable of becoming once the instinct for survival overtakes us. Some very effective scenes demonstrate this where decisions are made that can be deemed wrong or right ? depending on your viewpoint. Nothing is black and white. There is no clearly set out rules when it comes to trying to get yourself out of a predicament alive.
The use of 3D here is subtle and effective. While there's no debris being hurled in your face every few minutes, the 3D seems to bring the water engulfed caverns closer to your eyes. You almost think that if you reached out with your hand, you would actually touch water. The tunnels open up effectively in some shots while being disquieting tight and cramped in others.
As mentioned previously, this still looks like a James Cameron movie. So much so in fact, you can't help but wonder why he didn't actually direct it. It has the whole underwater theme like 'The Abyss' ? even the scuba helmets and dialog underwater reminds you of that fact. Like a lot of his movies ? from 'The Terminator' right up to 'Avatar', it starts off slow slow before abruptly shifting into gear. Even the poster is pure Cameron. Heck, even the title lettering has the same little glimmer of light that was on 'The Abyss' poster ? you'd almost be forgiven for thinking this is some sort of sequel.
But that doesn't detract from the movie in any way. Sanctum is a terrific and very exciting film. While deeply claustrophobic and at times unsettling, it remains entertaining on every level. It's a movie that if you let it hook you, it won't let you go. As with 'The Abyss', it will probably divide a lot people's opinions; but also as with 'The Abyss', its popularity will inevitably grow over time. But that's no excuse for missing it on the big screen now. See it. In 3D. Just don't have an Abyss style injustice happen for the second time. It doesn't deserve it. Highly recommended.