Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Alister Grierson

Stars: Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Grufford, Rhys Wakefield.

A group of cave divers are exploring the Esa-ala caves in New Guinea, one of the world’s largest underground cave systems. The expedition has been financed by obnoxious American entrepreneur Carl Hurley (hunky Hornblower star Ioan Grufford), an amateur adventurer himself. Leading the expedition is the gruff veteran spelunker Frank McGuire (played by Richard Roxburgh), who prefers the isolation of the underground caves to actual human interaction. Also on the expedition is Frank’s estranged teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield, from The Black Balloon, etc), whose surly and irresponsible behaviour has already caused some concerns.

As soon as one character asks “What could possibly go wrong, diving in caves?” you know that disaster is just around the corner. And sure enough, a fierce storm traps them underground. With the cave filling with water they have to fight their way through a series of incredible challenges to survive. They fight hypothermia, lack of oxygen, the treacherous tunnels, and even each other in their desperate quest to find an underwater passage to safety. The father-son dynamic between Frank and Josh adds a certain level of tension to the life and death struggle.

Sanctum is a $30million B-grade genre piece from Australian director Alister Grierson (Kokoda), which has been produced under the auspices of uber producer James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, etc). Most of the action takes place underground and in water logged tunnels, and this effectively adds to the claustrophobic feel. Sanctum has been inspired by the experiences of producer Andrew Wight, himself an avid cave diver, during a similar expedition a couple of decades ago. He was one of 15 people rescued from an underground cave after being trapped by a storm.

Wight previously worked with Cameron on his underwater documentaries like Ghosts Of The Deep. And now Cameron is returning the favour by being involved in lending his expertise and technical know-how, and, most importantly, his name, to this film. Cameron has also provided the filmmakers with the same state of the art Fusion 3D Camera System he used for Avatar. Grierson uses the 3D effects to particularly good effect in giving audiences an impression of the complex caverns and immersing them inside the labyrinthine caves. However, as with many films shot in 3D, the visuals are a little murky, and at times it is hard to discern what is happening.

David Hirschfelder’s score is dramatic enough, but at times it overwhelms the dialogue and sound effects, making it hard to discern what is going on. Cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin makes good use of locations in both Queensland and South Australia, and his underwater cinematography is quite spectacular.

The film may have two of Cameron’s hallmarks – lots of water and 3D technology – but it lacks his masterful touch and assured ability to utilise visual effects in the service of the narrative. It’s a pity that this ambitious film is let down by a cliched script from Wight and first time writer John Garvin, and some terribly one-dimensional characters and some embarrassingly clunky dialogue. Audiences do not identify with these characters and hence feel no empathy for them and their plight.



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