A Claustrophobic Cave Movie

Movie Review: Sanctum (2011)
Summary: A group of explorers fight to stay alive when they are trapped in a flooding and unexplored cave in Papua, New Guinea.
Spoilers: none

Directed by Alister Grierson, with executive producer James Cameron, the events of Sanctum, said to be “inspired by true events,” take place in “the mother of all caves,” in a cave system called Esa Ala in Papua, New Guinea.

The original true story on which the movie is based is the story of Andrew Wight and can be found here and here. While the beautiful underwater scenery might be considered reminiscent of Cameron's The Abyss (1989), there is nothing more than a superficial connection.

Veteran explorer “Frank” (Richard Roxburgh) and his dedicated team of life-risking adventurers find their ambitions to explore a series of underwater passages leading out to the Solomon Sea met with fierce resistance from an impending cyclone that approaches land. If they cannot finish their explorations in time, they will be forced to leave and resume at a future date at grievous expense to those who provide the funding. When the massive storm arrives sooner than expected, the team is thrust into an extra early evacuation that puts them in sudden peril.

“Josh” (Rhys Wakefield), the willful and partially estranged son of Frank, finds himself working with dad to save the lives of his comrades from the dangers of flooding caverns, failing breathing apparatuses, deadly drop-offs, decompression sickness, failing flashlight batteries at the most crucial of times—and not to be left out, the dangerous loss of nerve resulting in someone doing something “bat shit” crazy that puts everyone on the team in harm's way. 

It should have been the personal relationships and clashes of character under sandpaper strain that put Sanctum over the top, certifying it as a gripping movie where keeping your head amidst crisis is key. Getting lost and trapped in caves that stretch far underground and away from civilization should lay the ideal background for any drama. But here, the characters subtract from a well-paced story of looming mortality and against-the-odds chances of survival. The lifeless and largely pointless banter between members of the crew is a big detraction from a movie that – all the way to its very core – demands to be taken seriously.

“Carl” (Ioan Gruffudd) is engaged to "Victoria" (Alice Parkinson) and is a financial backer of the expedition, but they – like all the non-leads – do not possess the personality distinctions or depth that allow them to provide the necessary contrasts to stand out when required. The result: the whole lot suffers because of these and other unripened roles that would have benefited greatly from better defining qualities and a more personable script. 

And while the diverse and crisply-accented crew does fit the bill as a distinctly non-American band of explorers (who actually look and feel their parts), the pronounced overacting that starts things off never really disappears. The antics of this team and their competitively high-school-ish attitudes are not something that fits with the movie's beckoning gravity. 

Most regrettably, when tensions heat up and sanity begins to wear away among them, we find that we are not very invested in the well-being of anyone, even with the expressed despair of do-what-needs-to-be-done-and-grieve-later Frank who begins to feel the pressure, and shows it by snapping at Carl when his authority is challenged: “There is no god down here. This place doesn't give a rat's ass about me or you. We're just bits of dust passing through.” The impact of a disturbing drowning death is, of course, lessened incredibly when you are left to feel like you just witnessed an extra being taken out.

Despite a rather unimpressive use of 3-D and a number of flickering scenes where it is not totally clear who is seeing what, Sanctum does at least succeed at making the viewer feel extremely claustrophobic as any respectable cave movie should. If you dread closed-space dead-ends and air-pocketed, underwater caverns that are as featureless as they are cold and inhospitable, leading nowhere but to panic attacks, Sanctum will do the trick.

With the kicking to the curb of the melodrama, these freshly talented new faces would have had that much better of a springboard for being noticed. It is regrettable, however, that Sanctum, even with its $30,000,000 budget, didn't live up to its James Cameron-backed potential. Can't hit a homerun every time, I suppose. 


Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: R (for language, some violence, and disturbing images)
Director: Alister Grierson
Starring: Richard Roxburgh "Frank," Ioan Gruffudd "Carl," Rhys Wakefield "Josh," Alice Parkinson "Victoria," Dan Wyllie "Crazy George," Christopher Baker "J.D.," Nicole Downs "Liz"
Genre: Action / Adventure / Drama / Thriller