Beautifully back-lit bodies are suspended in water and from the 3-D screen in "Sanctum," the new trapped-in-a-cave thriller James Cameron produced as a way of showing off his love of all things underwater.
It’s a solid, old-fashioned action yarn filled with the latest dive gear and the oldest plot formula in the filmmaker’s playbook.
Set deep underground in the Esa Ala “caving district” of Papua New Guinea, it’s a story of a handful of explorers – some experienced, some novices – trapped underground when a cyclone floods “the largest unexplored cave system in the world.”
There are two central conflicts. Team leader Frank (Aussie actor Richard Roxburgh in full growl) is the hardened veteran cave explorer whose son Josh (Aussie newcomer Rhys Wakefield) is in full rebellion against dad’s chosen profession and his place in it.
“It’s a sphincter of rocks,” he pouts. “Nobody cares!”
Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) cares. He’s underwriting this expedition, ready to slap his name on places that “since the beginning of time, no human being has ever seen.” He’s more ready to take risks than Frank is, and that’s the second major conflict set up here.
Carl’s dragged his mountaineering girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) down the huge hole with him. Then there’s Frank’s old diving mate, George (Dan Wyllie), an expert on “the bends” – “Your blood’s gonna fizz up like a dropped can o’ beer.” Also along is Frank’s longtime aboriginal colleague Luko (Cramer Cain).
In the first act, we see how even when all the high-tech gadgets are working, something terrible can go wrong when you’re squeezing through tunnels with bulky dive gear on. Director Alistir Grierson has seen Cameron’s earliest underwater thriller, “The Abyss.” He knows there’s nothing more traumatic than watching someone panic and suffocate right in front of you. The 3-D makes that first death all the more traumatic.
The rains come and those five other folks are trapped with only Frank, “the most determined cave diver in the world,” to get them out. Frank’s leadership consists of barking “You can do this because you have to do this.”
In “Ten Little Indians” (an Agatha Christie story that set this formula in stone) fashion, the object of “Sanctum” is to make us wonder: Who will live and who will die next?
The movie, inspired by a real-life experience of Australian co-writer, explorer and Cameron consultant-pal Andrew Wight, is dully predictable, with touching moments of noble sacrifice and cliched scenes of rank cowardice. But the filmmakers make its stock-in-trade situations visually arresting.
Lacking supernatural elements, sex and over-the-top gore, “Sanctum” would have played better as a PG-13 picture. Gratuitous profanity doesn’t add edge to the Cameronesque tough-guy dialogue. And because you can figure out where it’s going long before our divers do, it seems too long.
But “Sanctum” does take us somewhere alien, though it is not exactly as dazzling as Pandora. And it performs according to spec, allowing its producer to further perfect the gear and techniques he is almost certain to turn loose on “Avatar 2” and “3” down the road.
** 1/2 **
Cast: Rick Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson, Rhys Wakefield
Director: Alister Grierson
Running time: 1:49
Rating: R; language, iolence, disturbing images