Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Sanctum is extreme people in extreme danger in an extreme place in 3-D. But it's the good kind of 3-D, the kind that immerses you in a place you've never been before without turning your stomach in the process. You get to swim around awesome subterranean realms that you'll likely never ever see with your own eyes.
Yes, Sanctum is a bit cheesy. It's like one of those old IMAX science documentaries crossed with a deliciously overblown 1970s disaster movie. It's pretty much the definition of a popcorn movie: It's visceral and not something you need to think too much about. There are shocking and intense moments of the ultimate-survival, life-and-death kind, performed by archetypal characters who are sketched out in ways we've culturally previously agreed upon: the cocky billionaire, the father and son who misunderstand each other because they're actually so alike, the overconfident adrenaline junkie. And so on.
Ungenerously, you might call them cardboard cartoon cutouts. Generously, you could call them almost operatic in their broad strokes.
But you don't go into a movie like this expecting depth beyond the subterranean shots. Though I doubt the Esa'ala Caves of Papua New Guinea that we're introduced to here are actually the largest unexplored cave system in the world or the last corners on the planet unseen by human eyes, the idea of such a place thrills me.
Director Alister Grierson presents this world to us in a beautifully thrilling way. He gets huge assists from producer James Cameron, through both the 3-D process Cameron developed for Avatar and the aquatic shooting techniques he honed on his lovely underwater documentaries Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss.
There's a sense that the divers exploring this cave are, in their seriousness and dedication to their work, akin to Cameron's colonial marines of Aliens or his deep-sea roughnecks of The Abyss. These divers are people for whom their technology is the difference between life and death, and the film has a solid respect for the cold equations of scientific reality when it comes to how to stay alive in such an unforgiving environment.
Staying alive is the crux of the story: Just after their billionaire backer (Ioan Gruffudd) and his Everest-climbing girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) pop 2 kilometers down for a visit to his investment, the team — including veteran lead diver (Richard Roxburgh) and his teenage son (Rhys Wakefield) — is cut off from its only known exit by flash floods. The only way out now is in — into territory they haven't finished mapping.
The film shows us gorgeous yawning caverns and claustrophobic tight spots: Watching the characters squeeze through them with essential breathing gear is nail-bitingly excruciating. The dangers faced along the way are more than enough to convince us that survival must surely be impossible.
Though the film is only loosely based on an actual experience by undersea explorer Andrew Wight (also a producer on Cameron's aforementioned documentaries), it does have an unclichéd ring of truth in its casual lethality. And that makes for a much more gripping cinematic experience than the cheesiness would imply.