Film Review: Sanctum

One-dimensional characters try to stay ahead of the water rapidly filling a vast, unmapped cave in this survival drama produced by James Cameron.

Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) has been leading research expeditions into the world’s most dangerous caves for years and has no patience for amateurs, slackers, dilettantes or thrill-seekers: In a crunch, they get people killed. His current mission, bankrolled by cocky adrenaline junkie Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd), is to chart a way to the Solomon Sea through Papua, New Guinea’s treacherous Esa’ala cave system.

Frank’s hand-picked team includes divers Liz (Nicole Downs), J.D. (Christopher Baker) and Judes (Allison Cratchley), computer whiz Dex (Andrew Hansen), old pros Luko (Cramer Cain) and George (Dan Wyllie), plus his 17-year-old son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), who deeply resents Frank for choosing globetrotting adventure over family life.

After an extended absence, Carl blows back into camp with his new girlfriend, fearless mountaineer Victoria (Alice Parkinson), whom he intends to impress with the wonders of cave diving. They arrive just in time to catch Dex’s live feed of Judes and Frank discovering an awe-inspiring underwater cavern, which is way cool until Judes’ scuba equipment malfunctions and she drowns before their eyes. Maybe Frank shouldn’t have dubbed their find “St. Jude’s Cathedral,” what with Jude being the patron saint of lost causes.

Meanwhile, the apparently ordinary tropical storm brewing when they arrived has exploded into a raging cyclone and is dumping water into the cave at an alarming rate. Only part of the team is able to evacuate before a rockslide seals the exit, trapping Frank, Carl, Victoria, Josh, Luko and George underground. They must find another way out or die.

Screenwriter Andrew Wight, a cave diver and independent filmmaker before he began producing large-format 3D documentaries for James Cameron, spun his own 1988 experience of being trapped in Western Australia’s Nullarbor cave complex into a worst-possible-scenario tale of man against the elements. The good news is that the visuals are breathtaking, an eerie landscape of electric-blue pools and sinuous tunnels that suggest a fantastic voyage through a labyrinth of ossified human innards.

But while the actors are all thoroughly credible as extreme adventurers (stunt doubles notwithstanding, the shoot—much of it on location in Australia’s Mount Gambier and Naracoorte caves—must have been grueling), even dogged pros like Roxburgh and Gruffudd can do little more than dutifully slog through the leaden dialogue and by-the-numbers conflicts. And anyone who can’t predict the order in which the bruised and battered survivors will fall prey to the implacable forces of nature and human error doesn’t spend much time at the movies.