Sunday, 6 February 2011

Sanctum: Cave of Blunders


I hope I'm now allowed to say, without fear of legal action, that on the Universal presentation day I went on a couple of weeks back, there was a short video introduction for "Sanctum" from its producer James Cameron. Cameron claimed that this film was an effort to show movie studios that any film could be made in 3D, not just big expensive blockbusters, whilst congratulating the Universal staff and other distributors for encouraging the move to digital. Little did he know that at least two of the projectionists he'd put out of a job were shouting "cock-knocker!" at the screen. I'm sure he wouldn't have cared anyway.

Looking at the film from this point of view, it is pretty much a failure. The 3D is unremarkable, most of the film is set in such confined spaces that any sense of scope and depth is completely irrelevant and, in the wider areas, the digitally enhanced caverns betray the frugal budget by looking wonky and fake.

Also, according to former musical villain Richard Roxburgh: "3D was a nightmare. Its camera is famously slow, and because it is new technology, it's fraught with issues. For instance, the camera runs very hot, and when it breaks down, it has to be rebooted and that takes time. Consequently the actors were paddling in water the whole time in wetsuits and we were freezing while waiting for the camera to be fixed."

So not really a successful technical trial either.

Cameron's assertion that this was the kind of film that should be being made in 3D, whilst proclaiming that tits 'n' gore-fest "Piranha 3D" is "an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s" seems extremely hypocritical. "Sanctum" is a ropey disaster flick, a buffed-up B-movie with a high concept, shallow characters and profoundly predictable plotting. Kind of like a load of shit films from the 70s and 80s eh, Jim?

Lest this whole review turns into just another airing of my Cameron-spite, let's actually talk about the film, shall we?

The story involves a bunch of cave-divers getting trapped in a cave when it begins to flood during a sudden storm. They have to enter uncharted territory in order to attempt to find a way out. The film has the dubious claim "Inspired by True Events" splayed across the opening credits but, judging from the ludicrous happenings in the film and the dearth of information my (admittedly superficial) research turned up, I'd the say the inspirational true event was that one of the writers got trapped in a cave one time. With some other people. Then they got out.

The film takes this as a springboard to dive into a story packed with cliched characters: the driven, professional cavediver (Roxburgh) who doesn't get on with his son, the son railing against the compulsion to follow in his father's footsteps, the rich investor who might as well be called Burke, Carter J., the visiting girlfriend who's out of her element, the cavediver's grizzled right-hand man who provides the comic relief with his wry commentary etc.

They are all buffeted along in a series set-pieces culminating in mishaps and misfortunes that you can see coming if you're watching the film cold, and which you have already seen if you've watched the trailer. Seriously, I was going "Oh, so this is the part when she drowns, when he falls and smacks his head, when she falls into the water, when he goes nuts and gets set on fire, the part where he's swimming on his own through a submerged cavern and sucking air-bubbles off the ceiling... Every major beat of the film is pretty much revealed in the promotional material, leaving you no surprises to be had.

Not that there would've been many surprises anyway. It's the kind of film where, when a character points out the tiny torch made out of a boar-tooth that he wears around his neck, claiming it an unwanted gift from his father, you want to slap your head and shout "I WONDER IF THAT WILL COME BACK LATER IN THE MOVIE?!?"

Here's the third act twist, though: In spite of, or maybe because of all this, I actually found "Sanctum" to be a fairly entertaining excursion into cornball disaster-movie tropes.

It's surprisingly sweary and grisly - perhaps an attempt at realism at odds with the actual content of the film - which keeps you on your toes when you go from laughing at the silliness of it all to wincing at someone's scalp being peeled off. Roxburgh is agreeably grumpy and grizzled as the Quint of Caves (I don't think he ever said "This cave'll swallow you whole", but he did some very close variants), and the father/son connection plot is paced well enough. Mr Fantastic gives good wanker as the investor, even though his inevitable fate is telegraphed from early on, there are some effective invocations of claustrophobia, vertigo and aquaphobia and the whole thing clocks in at about an hour and three quarters, so it won't eat your whole evening and you can laugh about it in the pub.

Feminists take note, though, as the only two prominent female characters are shown to be panicky, unprofessional, incompetent and basically useless, leading to their demise. Pretty much every member of the male gender who buys it, however, goes via some kind of noble sacrifice. Even the dirty traitor.

So this is Cameron's future of 3D. Bog-standard, disposable disaster movies with clumsy characterisation, formulaic plotting and arguably dubious gender representation. Can't fight progress.


  1. Every time I hear about this movie it just reminds me of "The Descent," a great horror flick about women on a caving trip gone awry.

    I'm new to your blog, so I'm sorry if you've discussed it in the past, but have you ever seen a movie that you think was made BETTER by 3D? Or at least a movie where the 3D wasn't an utterly useless gimmick that only served to inflate the ticket price?

  2. It's not as good as The Descent.

    Welcome to the blog!

    Er... I think I would have to say "No". Maybe Avatar was a more immersive experience in 3D, but that didn't stop it being a mediocre film. I have yet to see a 3D film that I thought "that needed to be in 3D". To me, it's just a fairground attraction.

    I talked about it in my Avatar review back in the day:

  3. Dayum!

    At least the review wasn't TOO horrible. I wanna see this movie so badly but my husband doesn't want too and from this it kinda makes me go -eh...

    I really want to see The Roommate! What are your thoughts on that movie

  4. "Piranha 3D" is "an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s"

    More like Sanctum-onious....right?