Yes, there are worse movies than Sanctum, but I didn’t see them this week, and as bad movies go, this one will do just fine. Since I’m not a fan of James Cameron, plastering his name all over the movie wasn’t a selling point for me, but that apparently was how it was thought they could market this thing with its no-name director and C-list stars, even though Cameron was only executive producer. Considering that Sanctum couldn’t take a really soft weekend box office—and that’s with the benefit of a three-to-five buck per ticket surcharge for the 3D—that notion doesn’t seem to have worked out so well. It serves both the film and the hucksters right.
Let’s see what good—apart from accidental mirth—we can find in this movie. Well, the 3D is pretty good and—well, the 3D is pretty good. The problem starts with a screenplay by newcomer John Garvin and one of Cameron’s undersea buddies Andrew Wight, whose only previous writing credit is a TV documentary called Shark Attack: A Survival Guide (2000). It is certainly possible that the dialogue here was written underwater. In fact, it seems pretty likely.
Saying that Messrs. Garvin and Wight have tin ears for dialogue is an insult to tin ears everywhere. Oh, it isn’t merely that they have a knack for the unintentionally funny (“If we go down here, even God won’t know where we are”), nor that they’ve apparently less clue about how people talk than George Lucas. No, it’s their remarkable tendency to have characters simply say the same things over and over again. Note to writers: If someone is struggling to breathe, they really don’t want to waste breath by constantly answering the idiotic question, “Are you all right?” Here’s a hint: If someone is hacking up a lung and gasping like a landed fish, that person is most assuredly not all right.
The story itself is only marginally coherent. Basically, the socially inept spelunking diver/explorer Frank (Richard Roxburgh, Dracula in Van Helsing) is leading an expedition down the world’s largest hole and into some spectacular series of caves somewhere in New Guinea. Why? I have no clear idea and neither do the filmmakers, since these caves appear to have been explored before. Of course, Frank and company find some hole that leads somewhere and which Frank ill-advisedly only opens enough to wiggle through. Well, it’s the sort of thing that serves the plot. It’s not long—though it seems like it is—before Frank, son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who doesn’t understand him, financier Carl (Ioan Gruffudd, “Mr. Fantastic” in the Fantastic Four movies), the financier’s bimbo-ish girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and Frank’s old pal Crazy George (Dan Wyllie) find themselves wiggling through that orifice in a race for their lives as the caves fill with water.
The suspense is supposed to be generated by the question of who will live and who will die. The problem with this is that it’s more likely to produce a gigantic, “Who cares?” Of course, the likely losers are kind of telegraphed anyway. George plays the whole film like it’s the last act of Camille and the minute he coughs up blood … well, you know he’s not making it out alive. Victoria is inexperienced and on the whiny side (“I’m not wearing a dead woman’s wet suit!”), so her hours are numbered. Carl is unlikeable and, worse, unheroic, etc. And will dad and son patch things up? Hey, dad teaches him Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” so well that the lad is able to recite a line more of the poem than he was taught. That’s bonding!
In all honesty, Sanctum gets more entertaining as it becomes dumber and more frantic. “Mr. Fantastic” going nutso is probably the funniest thing I’ve seen in 2011, which in this case is a plus. The only other real plus is the useful tidbit that if your father ever gives you a boar’s tooth with a flashlight built into it, hold onto it. It may save your life—assuming you’re living in a really stupid movie. Rated R for language, some violence and disturbing images.