I wonder how it comes about that you become so tremendously wealthy and famous that people stop saying “no” to you. I mean, when you’re a normal person, you’ll spend a fair amount of time verbalising things you don’t want, like fitness without having to run in the rain, or a new television when you’re scraping the barrel just to pay your electricity bill, or a family that doesn’t spend its time moaning about When Will You Supply Me With Grandchildren. Then suddenly, you’re a hotshot director or writer, and you’ve got so much fame and money you’ve made a Scrooge McDuck-type room furnished with a diving board and a swimming pool full of two-dollar coins. When you’re that rich, you hire a personal trainer to do the getting fit for you (or get liposuction), you put a wing on the house with its own movie theatre, and you hire a hitman to take out your family. And there is no such thing as no, which is great and all if you’re the person with the wealth, but if you’re the unsuspecting audience who originally forked out and made that person famous, suddenly you become lumped with creative output that no one has dared to stand up against. You’ll go and see something like Sanctum, and by the end of it, you will be holding your head in horror and wondering why someone didn’t roll the script into a tube and bat James Cameron on the nose with it, saying in their sternest tone of voice, “NO.”
Based loosely on a true story, a team of cave divers are splashing about in a huge deep Papua New Guinean sinkhole, hoping to discover new cave systems, when a cyclone approaches at high speed and traps them underground. In order to survive, they must make their way through unchartered territory, underwater and with great danger. Will they all live through the journey? God no, but I won’t tell you who does and doesn’t. Suffice it to say it is much less of the docudrama it appears on the ads and more a gorefest by the time the credits roll.
The bulk of the movie is spent following a small band of survivors: gruff old bastard Frank (Richard Roxburgh), son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who is currently on Frank’s “shit list”, arrogant boss Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), Carl’s mountaineering girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), old hand and resident Nice Guy George (Dan Wyllie), and local guide Luko (Cramer Cain). They are all decent actors doing the best they possibly could with such a godawful script. Australians are defined by the fact that they say things like “This whole place will be flooded like a blocked dunny!”, Americans by their terrible accents and unconditional arrogance, and Papua New Guineans by their quiet wisdom and heroics. None of them characters are particularly fleshed out, leaving you mostly indifferent as they are picked off by the cave and/or water.
Full of so many plot holes, discrepancies, and under-explained situations that even my usually generous mother rattled off a list of problems she had with it, Sanctum is painful enough to make you snort at inappropriate places and so riddled with clichés even the guys behind us were laughing and yelling out, “Let Josh do the climb, Frank, it’s your son’s time to shine!” during the most moving of scenes. Every plot turn is mapped out so far in advance you felt like Josh’s whinge about his father giving him a boar’s tooth necklace that he’d turned into a torch was basically him holding it up saying, “Look at this plot device my father gave me, expect this to be handy later.” The characters’ bad decisions bit them on the arse just exactly how you expect them to, some comeuppances swifter than others. Some appear to be painfully stuck in—like Victoria’s rejection of wearing a “dead woman’s wetsuit”—so they could shortly thereafter have a scene of her stripping naked to battle hypothermia and we could all get an eyeful of a hot woman in her undergarments. After all, none of the men end up naked but for Speedos.
Not only does Sanctum dismally fail the Bechdel Test, but the women are hysterical and irrational. Victoria—who met Carl while climbing Mount Everest—somehow later needs some lessons to climb up a short ladder, though she could theoretically be the best climber of all of them. She is inexperienced in caves and holds them back, which is frustrating because she’s also the only woman at that point and really, the girl being the helpless one is such an overdone movie trope that James Cameron should be sent angrily to his kennel followed with another angry “NO.” Along with that, the one joke in the whole film (“That’s not a wizard”) is preceded by The Chaser’s Andrew Hansen doing a gross mimicry of an Asian accent when greeting the party at the above-ground base of operations. I don’t often mention the political incorrectness of movies in this blog—others do it much better than me—but really, like Cameron’s Avatar, this was a movie where the White Man saved the day, and women and locals did not.
Sanctum was not actually the worst thing I’ve ever seen. (Maybe second worst.) Despite my lack of concern for the characters, as they died or were injured the scenes were amazingly crafted and heart-wrenching, but only for what they portrayed, not who they were. Seeing a character “put out of their misery” when injured too badly to continue is hard to watch and was handled well. This, peppered with some suspenseful scenes as the team fight through underwater tunnels, and a poignant moment with Frank in a decompression bubble looking bleak as a drowned body is suspended outside in the water, give it points. The actual surrounds are amazing, from the breathtaking huge hole in the ground as Josh, Carl and Victoria arrive by helicopter, and the caves themselves are as beautiful as they are claustrophobic and terrifying. Much has been made of the cinematography, but with about two-thirds of the flick being green-screen, the special effects team deserve more recognition. Unfortunately, unlike Avatar, the effects alone aren’t enough to make Sanctum a worthwhile trip to the cinema; just don’t go. If you want to see a cave movie, watch The Descent and bring a spare pair of pants. If you want a father-son reconciliation, watch The Simpsons (that happens in about every third episode.) If you want some lush visuals, take a bus to the country with the fifty bucks you’ll save forking out for 3D tickets, then send me your change in thanks.
In summary: so far Below Expectations it is practically underground. I mean, really. The use of the decompression bubble was confusing—sometimes needed, then sometimes not an issue, or one that could have been explained away in a short sentence. For those of us not cave diving with our spare time, its use seemed arbitrary. Also, why is Josh even there on the trip if he hates cave diving so much and thinks caves are stupid? And who the fuck wrote the line “[this tunnel is] tighter than a nun’s nasty”? Or coached Welsh and Australian actors Gruffudd and Parkinson in their forced American accents? Or thought that “You need to go easy on him” and “He’s a good kid, Frank” weren’t the second and third Most Uttered Lines in movies after “Behind you!” BAD JAMES CAMERON. BAD. GO TO YOUR ROOM.