Thursday, February 3, 2011

An underground quest for survival

Sanctum has decent action and 3D depth, but the script ... er ... what script?

When James Cameron, executive producer of the new movie Sanctum, gets involved with an "underground movie," he seems to take the phrase literally. Set in what's billed as the world's largest cave, Sanctum burrows deep into the Earth, dragging Cameron's highly developed 3D cameras along with it.

Promotional materials for Sanctum make prominent use of Cameron's name, but Sanctum arrives on screen without the gargantuan - or maybe Titanic - appeal of a James Cameron "event" movie. In the hierarchy of releases, Sanctum earns B-movie status. Put another way: It's no king of the movie world.

That's not to say that this underground adventure, executive produced by Cameron, has nothing going for it. Images of divers floating in lonely underground pools or squeezing through impossibly narrow spaces or scaling slippery cave walls can be both mysterious and intense. Hell, if you don't care about trivial matters such as plot, acting and dialog, you may even have a good time.

Sanctum takes us to Papua New Guinea where a group of cavers is in the midst of a major exploration. Indistinguishable at first, the movie's characters eventually blossom, but only into clich├ęs: the tough expedition leader, his son, a young man who thinks his father is an unfeeling jerk, the brash expedition sponsor, the sponsor's girlfriend, etc.

A title card at the beginning tells us that Sanctum was inspired by a true story. Pay attention to the word "inspired." I've read that in 1988, Andrew Wight, a caver and documentary filmmaker who receives a co-screenwriting credit here, led an expedition into an Australian cave. A party of 15 explorers was stranded. All eventually were rescued.

You can rest assured that's not the case with Sanctum. If caving isn't your thing, you can occupy idle moments by guessing who's likely to expire as the cavers desperately seek an escape route. A cyclone has cut them off from the cave's entrance, a giant hole in the ground that allows for some dizzying, early-picture images.

The cast isn't brimming with marquee names, and the performances are adequate at best. Richard Roxburgh plays Frank McGuire, the tough-minded leader of the expedition. Rhys Wakefield portrays McGuire's son Josh, a young man who's highly critical of his father. Ioan Gruffudd appears as the expedition's sponsor.

But let me return to the beginning, to a script in which the only novel twist involves the way a couple of badly injured characters die.

Couldn't there have been a story meeting in which someone raised one or all of the following issues?

"Let's either strip this thing down to minimalist action or hire someone to tweak the dialog. And wouldn't it be less confusing if we spent more time introducing the characters? Wouldn't that make it easier for audiences to feel something when the characters start to fall victim to natural terrors? Is a contrived father/son conflict really enough to sustain interest? Are we being way too predictable? And what exactly are we trying to say anyway?"

You get the idea: Sanctum - directed without distinction by Alister Grierson -- is like half a movie; it has great locations, some interesting effects and a palpable desire to create the sensations associated with caving at its most dangerous: The rest seems to have been swept away by the same cyclonic currents that stranded our adventurers in the first place.

The 3-D? If you've read any of my reviews, you know I'm sick of it, and Sanctum did little to change my mind. Maybe that's just me. But just to set the record straight: I want to make it clear that I like B-movies, particularly if they show gritty intelligence and some no-holds-barred attitude. Too often, Sanctum feels as if has been made by people who leaped headlong into a cave without adequate preparation.

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