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A movie directed by Alister Grierson

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Cameron Explores the Cave of Blunders

  • Feb 5, 2011
Star Rating:

Sanctum exemplifies what happens when innovation becomes more important than a screenplay. The story is contrived, calculating, and unpleasant, but never fear – James Cameron is the executive producer, and he will see to it that we gawk helplessly at the difficult camerawork, the authentically claustrophobic sets, and the 3D effects. Perhaps it was his intention for director Alister Grierson to experience his own private version of The Abyss, a technological breakthrough that came at the expense of a notoriously difficult shoot. The only difference is that, this time around, the needless suffering is reflected in the finished film, which tells a story so bleak and simple-minded that it’s an insult to audiences, especially the ones that paid extra for the 3D glasses.
It’s said to be based on a true story, but considering the way the plot unfolds, I can’t help but take that claim with a grain of salt. It depicts an ill-fated scuba-diving expedition in Papua New Guinea’s Esa-ala, a vast network of underground caves; the plan was to surpass a base camp deep beneath the surface and continue further in, but things take a turn for the worst when a massive storm floods the cave’s opening and traps the people within. According to the team leader, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), it’s merely a matter of finding an underground river and following its current, for all rivers flow towards the sea. He would, of course, say something like that, for he understands caves far better than the mind-numbing routine of CDs, mortgages, and fatherhood.

I’ve admitted in the past that I don’t understand the thought processes of mountain climbers and thrill seekers. But movies about such people are usually made in such a way that we, the audience, can somehow respond to the unexplainable lure of nature. The best current example is 127 Hours; even with James Franco’s arm pinned between a dislodged bolder and a canyon wall, director Danny Boyle had the decency to explore the simplistic beauty of Blue John Canyon, to show the rock formations bathed in sunlight. Compare this to Sanctum, which takes place almost entirely within the confines of cramped, desolate, dark, waterlogged caves. Such locations fail to inspire a sense of awe. Because of this, it’s virtually impossible to sympathize with any of the characters.
Not that they were well developed in the first place. Their primary function is to spew inane dialogue before displaying many of the ways in which a person can die in a scuba expedition. By the end of the movie, we will have seen examples of the bends, hypothermia, broken bones, and drowning – which, I’m sorry to say, isn’t always an accidental occurrence. One of the characters, the girlfriend of the expedition’s financier, is inexperienced as both a scuba diver and a mountain climber, and that sort of makes me wonder why she was allowed to join in the first place. She, along with just about everyone else, is as disposable as a teenager in a slasher film, and about as authentically written.

The only two characters that matter are Frank and his son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield). The more scenes they share, the more obvious it becomes that Sanctum was manufactured strictly for the purposes of watching them reconnect. They have never gotten along; Frank is an explorer who hears only to the call of the wild, and Josh has been forced to partake. But they have more in common than it might first appear, a revelation that pretty much exists only in movies like this. They will eventually find themselves in a commonplace survival scenario, one that involves someone who has gone mad out of desperation to escape. I’d expect this kind of thing from a western or a horror movie, but not from a man-against-nature drama.
Although not credited as one of the writers, I have an uneasy feeling that James Cameron contributed to the screenplay. Let me make it clear that I’ve always championed him as a filmmaker and storyteller, and that includes his latest effort, the monumentally successful Avatar. But now, I feel I must admit that, in one key area, he has consistently disappointed me: The man has a tin ear for dialogue. With Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic, and now with Sanctum, there is not a single line that sounds like something a person would actually say. You know something is wrong when the only way to counteract the effects of a bad scene is to overcompensate with foul language, which flows freely in just about every scene. This is a surprisingly bad movie, something that doesn’t deserve the name of James Cameron.


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February 05, 2011
I don't understand thrill seeking either but this sounds like a lot of production and little in the story. Cameron is drawing ever closer to the darkside as I said in my own Avatar review.
February 05, 2011
Cameron to John: "John, I am your father!" LOL!
February 05, 2011
If by "darkside" you mean he's becoming too mainstream, you may be right, although his films have always been mainstream successes. If you mean the tone of his films, I would argue he has always been affiliated with the darkside. Watch "Aliens" or "Terminator 2" and tell me I'm wrong.
February 05, 2011
Thank you, but by Dark Side I mean that he's being too much like George Lucas and letting his computers tell the story and ignoring the story and polishing up plot holes. Camerons movies in the past were tighter andtold better stories and still had the cool effects and sets.
February 05, 2011
I personally have never had an issue with George Lucas in that regard, but I see the the point you're making. And in Cameron's case, you're probably right -- although we can't forget that, in spite of the creative control he must have had, he still wasn't the director of "Sanctum."
February 05, 2011
Your absolutely right. I forgot. By the way, noting that it's Cameron's name thats selling the movie, I remember movies like Iron Monkey and Hostel using Tarantino's name to sell those movies.
February 05, 2011
Great review. In some ways, I really don't mind a hollow characterization, sometimes in real life, we tend to not know who meet. But what bothered me was its predictability in the execution of the supporting characters and that opening scene didn't help matters any. Some devices felt really forced. I didn't hate it, but thankfully I managed to see a great movie as a rental once I got home. I was surprised how much I enjoyed THE AMERICAN. Did you review it?
February 05, 2011
I saw "The American" but didn't review it. I too thought it was a great movie -- great and completely misrepresented by the ads.
February 07, 2011
Hey, Chris, you got my message?
February 07, 2011
Yes. And I sent you a reply.
February 05, 2011
While Cameron is the executive producer... I think that was just a ploy to sell the film.  James Cameron probably wasn't nearly as involved in this project as people might think.  Similar to how Steven Spielberg is the Executive Producer for those Transformer movies... but Michael Bay calls all the shots.  Spielberg is just there to give Bay what he needs, not to actually do interfere with what Michael Bay wants to do.  Cameron was probably in the same position, and what the guys thought was that having his name attached would give the film more appeal.  But the weak writing and such was probably the fault of the director and screenwriter, although it's true that Cameron is terrible with dialog.  In fact every movie he's ever made has nothing but terrible dialog.  Even his good ones. 

As far as it being based off a True Story, though... one thing to note is that Sanctum isn't based off some awesome cave diving story or anything like that.  There's no book or anything which exemplifies what happened.  Actually the "True Story" it's based off of is Screenwriter Andrew Wight's experience while cave-diving.  That's the story it's based off of.  He lead an expedition into the cave and nearly died trying to get out or something like that. 

I suppose I expected this to be fairly bad.  It just didn't seem to have a hook for me.  I might end up seeing it at some point, but I'm glad to have read your review first.
February 05, 2011
I don't know -- I tend to think Cameron had plenty of influence on the making of this movie, mostly because so much of it has his personal touches. The underwater cameras, the 3D process, the prominence of technology in the film (the scuba equipment, the computers, the robotic camera system), and the dialogue just seem like his style. You mentioned Steven Spielberg; maybe it was something like the making of "Poltergeist," in which directorial credit was given to Tobe Hooper despite reports that Spielberg had most of the creative control.
February 06, 2011
Well, that's kind of what I mean.  Cameron provided them everything they needed but let them go nuts with it.  Perhaps he had influence, but I'm still guessing a lot of it is trying to sell it.  But you're probably more on the money than I am.  I still haven't seen this yet and I'm going to try sometime soon.  There's a theater where the people seem to like me a lot so they sometimes let me in for free.
February 06, 2011
Really? For free? Wow. I wish I had that kind of influence at the theaters I go to.
More Sanctum reviews
review by . February 05, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Being promoted as “executively-produced” by James Cameron, the director of “Avatar”, the film “SANCTUM” directed by Alister Grierson generated some buzz in the movie community, and I was almost certain that it would once again display the advancements in 3D technology. I wasn’t really expecting much when I went to see this film; it was inspired by true events when one of the writers of its script Andrew Wright experienced an event that almost cost them their …
review by . July 18, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
*1/2 out of ****     "Sanctum" is a full-time underwater cave adventure that bears the spirit of a good thriller, but none of the quality. Executive Produced and "presented" by "King of the World" James Cameron, the movie is the kind that I'd never thought I'd see turn up. It's a movie that was essentially destined to be good, but then the wrong filmmaker got a hold of it, and all went to bloody hell. And that's too bad, because I desperately wanted to enjoy it.    And …
review by . March 20, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
It's all about survival
Caves are awesome! It has a life of its own, hidden below and underneath everyone's scrutiny. To go into caves, exploring what's in them, is an adventure of a lifetime. Virgin caves are what explorers go after. I'd have to contend myself with the tourists' fare. Still, there are less dangers involved and one gets to return without losing one's life and bearings!         Sanctum was shot in Gold Coast and not Papua New Guinea. The story revolves around …
review by . July 04, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
A Beautiful B Movie...nothing more
“Sanctum” is a film about a group of people who aren’t very comfortable in the real world, with its messy relationships and mortgage payments, mixed motivations and emotional complexity and such. They prefer to spend their time exploring subterranean landscapes, alternately climbing and diving their way through lost parts of the world. They seem some stunningly amazing and beautiful sights along the way, and also face life and death situations almost every day.      …
review by . March 11, 2011
Caving seems like a cool thing in theory, but in practice I'm sure it's not all that cool (except for those special few that do it professionally).  The element of surprise and the vast unknown is terrifying enough above ground and I'm not sure I would want to put myself out there somewhere in the deep blue sea, especially if it has never been "explored" before.       Sanctum is an adventure thriller that will keep you entertained (so long as you …
Quick Tip by . February 07, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Solid film. Probably not the greatest film ever made but is enjoyed it. It reminded me of Into Thin Air, but for caves.
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


Sanctum is a 2011 3D adventure drama film directed by Alister Grierson and executive produced by James Cameron.


During an underwater cave exploration in Papua New Guinea, five people are trapped when a cyclone starts flooding the cave. With the water going up and the air running out, their only hope of survival is to travel through the unexplored underwater caves following the course of the river that leads into the ocean.

The film begins with the explorers 17-year-old Josh (Rhys Wakefield), expedition bank-roller Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd) and his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), reaching the cave by helicopter at the Esa'ala Cave site.

Upon reaching the cave it is made known that Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), Josh's father and a master diver, has already set up a forward base camp deep inside the cave. The team has been exploring the cave system for months, and have set up an excellent communication network that allows communication with the camp from above. While Victoria and Josh rappel down the cave, Carl chooses to dive and parachute into it, reaching the base camp before Josh and Victoria.

While the guests get comfortable, Frank and diver Judes (Allison Cratchley) decide to explore an unexplored section of the cave known as Devil's Restriction. Squeezing through a narrow passage they reach a giant cavern with huge ...

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Director: Alister Grierson
Release Date: 4 February 2011 (USA)
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: John Garvin, Andrew Wight
Runtime: 109 min
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