The scariest thing about the caving-expedition-gone-wrong thriller Sanctum is that it’s loosely based on a true story. In 1988, writer/producer Andrew Wight, a well-known caver, led an expedition into a remote cave system under the Nullarbor Plain in Australia. A freak storm collapsed the entrance and trapped 15 people.
Happily, they survived with a better success rate than the unlucky explorers in Sanctum, who are similarly trapped by flooding from a massive storm and subsequently fall prey to gruesome accidents, poor decision-making, murderous rage, some seriously laughable acting, hilarious dialogue and a burdensome back story of father-son discord so heavy handed it could drag down the most light-hearted of plots.
And Sanctum’s plot is anything but effervescent. Cave explorer/diver extraordinaire Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) has set out to chart a huge, mysterious underground system in the South Pacific. Along for the ride, in addition to Frank’s nameless crew members, are the adventure-junkie financier Carl (Ioan Gruffudd); Carl’s girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), an Everest climber who gets a little whiny; George (Dan Wyllie), Frank’s right-hand man, who at one point has to dive even though he’s been laid low by the bends, and Frank’s teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), a talented climber who resents his father’s bossy ways, even though Dad seems to be the only guy who knows what he’s doing. But when disaster strikes, Josh (and everybody else) must rely on gruff Frank’s expertise.
Sanctum’s biggest claim to fame, of course, is that it was filmed in Queensland, Australia, with the photographic system executive producer James Cameron used in Avatar, which allegedly delivers flawless IMAX projection in 3-D. The underwater photography can be stunning — the image of a body that floats eerily in the glow from a decompression chamber to which it is tied lingers longer than you’d like — but even so, the 3-D is largely wasted here, as it usually is these days.
The bigger problem with the film, which is genuinely unnerving at times, is what happens when the cavers are not in immediate peril, because they talk. They say: “What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?” and “Carl likes to play by his own rules,” and “There’s no God down here,” and my favorite, “Pain’s the vulture that sits on your shoulder.” That vulture was certainly digging its talons into my back every time anybody opened his or her mouth.
But despite its B-movie flaws, Sanctum still manages to exude a claustrophobic terror; by the time it is winding down, you want out of these caves as badly as the weary protagonists do. The action scenes are sometimes horrifying enough to make you gasp aloud. If only the rest of the film were similarly breathtaking.
Cast: Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson.
Director: Alister Grierson.
Screenwriters: John Garvin, Andrew Wight.
Producers: Ben Browning, James Cameron, Ryan Cavanaugh, Michael Maher, Peter Rawlinson, Andrew Wight.
A Universal Studios release. Running time: 109 minutes. Language, some violence, disturbing images. Opens Friday, Feb. 4 at: area theaters.