It's no secret that James Cameron is a diving enthusiast. He scored his first feature directing job – the mostly risible "Piranha II: The Spawning" – in part on the strength of his diving experience. His 1989 "The Abyss" may have its problems, but no subsequent underwater adventure has topped it. And, of course, in Titanic, it's the sea – not the girl – who ends up eternally with Leonardo DiCaprio.
So it shouldn't be surprising that he served as executive producer on "Sanctum" – another underwater adventure, shot in 3-D, using the camera systems developed for his documentaries "Aliens of the Deep" and "Ghosts of the Abyss." Directed by Alister Grierson, "Sanctum" applies 21st-century technology to a 20th-century – maybe 19th-century, or even Homeric – sort of story. A group of daredevil explorers find themselves trapped by a flash flood in (we are told) "the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system on Earth."
The de facto leader of the group is the ruthlessly unsentimental Frank (Richard Roxburgh), the kind of tough guy who is willing to put dying comrades out of their misery rather than slowing down the others' chances of surviving. Also along for the ride are craven moneyman Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) and his lovely consort Victoria (Alice Parkinson), as well as Frank's resentful son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield). As they search for a back door out of the caverns, one after another is subjected to the perils of Mother Nature and/or human nature. Which ones (if any) will survive?
Meanwhile, in between the scary parts, we are subjected to a veritable Bartlett's of hackneyed dialogue: "He's a good kid, Frank! Cut him some slack"; "I didn't come all the way here to sit on the sideline and watch!"; "Down here there is no God!" Given the level of the writing, it's not surprising that the usually reliable Gruffudd gives a painfully bad performance.
On the upside, this may be no "The Wages of Fear," but most of the action is compelling, even during the flood scenes, where it's tough to piece together exactly who is where and what's happening to whom. And Cameron once again shows that he understands the good and the bad of 3-D better than any of his competitors. Like "Avatar," the film avoids the biggest 3-D killer – showing things projecting in front of the screen. And only occasionally is the sense of depth extreme; most of the time it's muted… just like in real life.
If the only real reason to see "Avatar" was the 3-D effects, "Sanctum" raises the opposite question: Does the 3-D add all that much to the experience? Well, no, not really. It's technically impressive, but most of the better aspects of "Sanctum" would be almost – maybe exactly – as effective viewed the old-fashioned way. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language, some violence, and disturbing images.)
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