A team of divers are exploring the South Pacific's uncharted Esa-ala Caves. But when a freak storm hits and their exit is blocked, they're forced to keep heading down, in the hope of escape.
That this Australian cave-diving drama comes with a “James Cameron Presents...” tag is no real surprise — the man has relentlessly plunged his own protagonists into icy aqua (even True Lies starts with Arnie in a wetsuit), and is so obsessed with charting unknown depths that he’s probably pottering around the bottom of the Mariana Trench as you read this. But can Sanctum 3D live up to the King of the World’s own whiteknuckle descents? Well, yes and no. On the plus side, it’s technically excellent and boasts a few enjoyably breath-shortening set-pieces. In the debit column, it has few characters you’ll actually care about and – most grievously – feels small. As such, the vibe is more TV movie than Avatar-esque must-see.
Based loosely on an actual expedition-gone-wrong from the 1980s, Alister Grierson’s film weirdly follows the early beats of Jurassic Park: a helicopter-load of folk approach a remote jungle shore, where daredevils are tangling with the extremes of nature and the mother of all storms is preparing to blow in. In this case, though, the perils unleashed aren’t dinos, but the rising water-level, diminishing oxygen supplies and ‘cave madness’, the mania that can set in when you’re stuck two miles below daylight.
It all works best in the dialogue-stripped action sequences. Cameron is not a man likely to godfather a project without first rigorously checking the tech, and here’s proof that even a low-budget film can have sterling 3D and a blockbuster sheen. Sanctum has mesmerising shots of divers floating in the big, blue void; claustrophobic squeezes into dark underwater tunnels; a fumbling, painful death scene. But eventually the actors’ regulators have to come out, and for the most part you’ll wish they didn’t. Disaster movies aren’t usually noted for their well-rounded characters, but even by the standards of the genre this is an unappealing, clichéd bunch.
There’s the irritating brat son (Rhys Wakefield), with a chip on his shoulder about his adventurer dad. There’s the gung-ho millionaire (Ioan Gruffud, with a deeply iffy American accent), who can’t handle pressure, figuratively or literally. Most of the rest are just bland. Only Richard Roxburgh, as the aforementioned granite-hard dad, brings gravitas, though he’s lumbered with “You’re a softcock!”-style ocker dialogue. This is a script so first-base that at one point in the first reel, someone actually says, “What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?”
The third dimension brings a little freshness to the cave-hopping, a scenario that’s been riffed on by everything from The Descent to The Goonies. Shame the characters and story beats are missing – well – depth.
Workmanlike suspenser, with plenty of cold water but sparse chills. When it comes to James Cameron scuba thrillers, The Abyss still has the edge.