When I was a kid playtime was filled with much shouting and danger. My friends and I would be in imaginary dangerous situations, and most of our play would involve shouting warnings to each other. “Look out!” we’d fake scream. “The ledge is collapsing!” “Oh no! The dinosaurs woke up!” “Jump! The floor turned to lava!”
Sanctum is the movie version of that.
Inspired by true events (which I don’t believe were half as deadly as the film), Sanctum is a claustrophobic’s nightmare: people are trapped in a massive, flooding cave system and must push forward through unexplored tunnels in an attempt to escape. Leading the crew is Richard Roxburgh as Frank, the gruff and driven experienced cave diver, the last great explorer on the planet. His son, Josh, a kid who never wanted to cave dive in the first place and who thinks his dad is a total dick, is played by Rhys Wakefield. And then Ioan Gruffud, aka Mr. Fantastic, is the billionaire who financed the expedition in the first place and who finds real adventure to be much harder than he expected. And then there’s Fake Sigourney Weaver, Guy Who Clenches His Teeth and some other people who are just pretty much around to get offed by the cave.
Which is fine by me. After a bit of a slog in the first act, Sanctum gets down to its main business and gets down to it well - it’s a tense, shouty, survival movie that isn’t afraid to keep knocking off characters in ways that make you squirm. It’s essentially a much more polished big screen version of Animal Planet’s I Shouldn’t Be Alive, and I love that show.
Roxburgh is a blast as Frank, a man whose sphincter is as tight as some of the passages through which the crew must swim. I always judge these films by how restless I get during the inevitable ‘sweet’ moments - in this case the obvious reconciliation between Frank and Josh - and Roxburgh’s gritty manly man act kept me wildly entertained. As did Gruffud’s slowly unravelling billionaire (I liked to imagine that he was based on producer James Cameron, a rich man who forces himself on real explorers and adventurers).
The weak link is Wakefield, the latest in a long line of nobody young actors without much going on. His anger at Roxburgh comes across as petulant and pissy as opposed to righteous or earned. Wakefield’s just another bland blonde boy who will probably keep getting roles as long as producers are afraid of casting any young actors with charisma or an edge.
Sanctum was shot in 3D (as the marketing will very much remind you), but who cares? At first I thought that the tight confines of the caves might make for some interesting 3D action, but as is always the case with 3D films I generally forgot I was watching 3D fifteen minutes in - except for the slight queasiness I would feel when I moved my head and my eyes had to readjust their focus. It’s just becoming more and more obvious that there is nothing interesting to this technology, and that we, as a species, should move on.
Director Alister Grierson, working from a script by John Garvin and Andrew Wight (who had the real life experience that inspired the film), keeps things moving along nicely once that sluggish first act is passed. I especially like that the film is brutal, wantonly injuring and killing people. It’s also realistic about survival; Grierson isn’t approaching this like a standard Hollywood film where the hero does superhuman things to save people and the only folks who die are idiots or bad guys; people die in Sanctum simply because their luck sucks, and the survival of the group always takes precedence over the cuddling of the individual. I don’t know how many other movies you’ll see this year where drowning someone is an act of mercy.
For me the final element that makes Sanctum more than just a dumb time at the movies isn’t the deadly dialogue, it’s the sense of authenticity; you believe that this is the way it would go. Every piece of equipment is real and the way that the people react feels real (which doesn’t mean it’s always smart). On one end of the spectrum are those cable TV shows that luridly document crazy survival stories, while on the other is Jon Krakauer’s engaging, sobering Into Thin Air. Sanctum sits right in the middle of those - lurid enough to entertain but accurate enough to feel like you’re maybe seeing something true. True-ish, at any rate.
In the meantime I’ll leave you with some of the greatest hits of Sanctum, which could have been replayed via fake yells in pools across the nation this summer if the film hadn’t gone for an unnecessary R rating through prodigious use of the word ‘fuck’(it’s otherwise quite a soft R):
“He’s taken the rebreather!”
“Don’t use your knife!”
“You’ve got to make it through!”
and of course:
“The chamber is flooding!”