If Avatar was the cinematic equivalent of a brash, hulking show off, then Sanctum is its slight but wiry Australian cousin. Filmed with the same 3D cameras and executive produced by James Cameron, Sanctum is a solid action film and a skilful calling card for cinema’s new dimension.
The story is based on producer and consummate cave diver Andrew Wight’s harrowing account of being stranded by a freak storm in the Nullarbor, where he and his unfortunate companions were forced to literally discover a new way out. This account has been fictionalised into a story that centres on a fractious father/son relationship between Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and Josh (Rhys Wakefield), as the life-and-death experience puts their already strained relationship under more pressure (again, literally).
If you can get past the cringingly clunky opening act, then the trills and spills of Sanctum make for well crafted popcorn entertainment. Josh and Frank’s familial difficulties are given way too much air time, while the leaden load of exposition about the cave itself is handed to none other than The Chaser’s Andrew Hansen. Once in the depths, Dan Wyllie steals all his scenes as ‘Crazy’ George, the comic relief with the dramatic chops to back it up. Roxburgh trades in his Rake robes for a wetsuit, further anchoring the film with a suitably grouchy gravitas, which allows relative newcomer Wakefield (The Black Balloon) to convincingly shoulder his lead role. The rest of the ensemble is a little hit and miss, with Welshman Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) in particular seeming to struggle with both his American accent and his pencil sketch of a character.
Although Sanctum is hard on the ears, the visuals are much more easy on the eyes. Some truly striking underwater sets are on offer, with some terrifying stunts to match. The 3D succeeds in amplifying the audiences’ experience, and on a visual as well as thematic level, the conceit of fading light is one of the film’s strongest elements. So, any claustrophobics out there can consider themselves warned; this is definitely not the film to see before fronting up to do your PADI course!
Australian release date: 3 February 2011