SANCTUM Blu-ray Review

     July 6, 2011

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The cover-box for Alister Grierson’s Sanctum trumpets the involvement of James Cameron, the 3D-enthusiast who changed the game a few years ago with Avatar.  Holding the cover box in your hands, you might be inclined to believe that Sanctum was directed by Cameron– that seems to be the implication (or, at the very least, it would be to the type of people that rent Transmorphers thinking they’re getting Transformers)– but a little careful reading reveals that Cameron only executive-produced the film.  You knew that, of course, and I knew that, but what about all the idiots that’ll think Sanctum‘s Cameron’s latest film?  They’re in for a few very-unpleasant surprises.  Read on for our Blu-ray review of Sanctum, after the jump.

sanctum-blu-ray-cover-imageSanctum made a lot of noise about itself when it arrived in theaters last year, trumpeting James Cameron’s involvement (if you skipped the intro, he’s the executive producer) and the fact that the film was shot underwater…and in 3D.  The trailer for the film seemed to imply that Sanctum would combine the underwater claustrophobia of Cameron’s The Abyss with Cameron’s gee-whiz techno-display in Avatar to create a pulse-pounding, action-packed thrill ride.  Or as CBS-TV’s Sandie Newton is (embarrassingly) quoted as saying on the cover box, a “mind-blowing & jaw-dropping” movie.  Allow me to say this to anyone that takes Blu-ray cover boxes seriously:  if your mind is blown by Sanctum, the problem lies with your mind.  This is a boring, tedious film.

The problems start almost immediately, and seem to multiply as the film goes on.  Should we address the unnecessary profanity?  Note that I say that as a man who liberally lards his conversations with words beginning with the letter “F”.  Sanctum contains a few scenes wherein violence occurs, but none of it’s grisly, none of it’s overtly gory.  No, the R-rating is there mainly because of the language, and I can think of no valid reason that Cameron– and director Alister Grierson (and screenwriters John Garvin and Andrew Wright)– would have included it here.  Aren’t studios usually known for stripping out unnecessary profanity in order to put more asses in seats with a PG-13 rating?  It’s just bizarre, and it happens almost immediately.  I like hearing characters talk like people I know talk in real life– it tends to sell the movie’s reality for me more– but here it’s just…awkward, out of place, and feels like an obvious flaw.  I mean, if you were going to inject the film with something worth getting an R-rating over, why not include topless cave-divers?  Surely that would’ve been more organic than people dropping F-bombs throughout.

Side Note:  I can’t believe I just complained about profanity in a movie (and for so many sentences!  Sorry, readers).

Sanctum-movie-imageMoving on, let’s also address the characters:  the film’s packed with relative unknowns, with Fantastic Four‘s Ioan Gruffudd being the only face you might recognize, and they’re all playing one-note, paint-by-numbers characters.  There’s the rich, risk-taking businessman who gets his jollies off by doing dangerous shit like climbing around inside underwater caves.  There’s the snotty son with a chip on his shoulder, and he’s at odds with the lead cave-diver– his dad.  That dude’s all growls and craggy facial expressions and bad attitude, and if you guess that he’s going to try and reconnect with his son over the course of the film (while also learning that tough-love doesn’t always work), you win no prizes.

Then there’s the diving team, played by an instantly forgettable crew of stock-characters that seem ripped out of any other “people-on-a-mission” film.  Some of them look like background extras that didn’t make it on screen during The Abyss.  The point here is this:  the characters are boring, obvious, and will not give you a single reason to care about them across the film’s run-time.

On a related note, Sanctum‘s plot is similarly by-the-numbers:  a crew of cave-divers is hanging around inside the world’s most dangerous, unexplored, ominous-looking cave system.  They’re quickly joined by the rich-guy and his posse, the idea being that they’ll traverse the rest of the cave system– which, remember, is heretofore unexplored– and achieve glory, self-satisfaction, and certainly no danger in the process.  Because this is a movie, you already know that they’re going to encounter some problems.  I can imagine a film with this setup that plays well, one where the story’s actually compelling and the characters are worth giving a shit about, but Sanctum is– as you might have guessed– not that movie.

Sanctum-movie-imageYou’ll see just about every beat of the story coming a mile away, and in the moments where Sanctum does surprise you (say, with the death of a character, several of which occur during the course of the film), you won’t care about the surprise.  You’ll just raise an eyebrow, check your watch, and wonder why you rented or purchased this movie despite my very well-reasoned review telling you not to.  You’ll have no one but yourself to blame, and eventually the shame from this decision will destroy your entire life.   Next thing you know, you’re doling out handski’s at the bus station in exchange for gas money.  It’s a slippery slope, folks.

Anyway, I’d imagine that Sanctum looked very impressive up on a big-screen with the benefit of 3D (say what I will about the film, but it never looks anything less than gorgeous, especially on Blu-ray), and I bet that– like Avatar– this was really the only version of the film worth seeing.  The Avatar comparison is an apt one, and considering Cameron’s involvement here, I won’t feel bad beating it to death over the course of this paragraph.  The fact of the matter is this: Avatar was only truly impressive on a big-ass screen with those germ-ridden 3D goggles strapped to your head.  Have you seen the film since then?  Watched it on, say, DVD on a smallish TV?  Completely useless, isn’t it?  While Avatar may have “changed the game” (read: kick-started the “Let’s 3D-ify everything we release that cost more than $2m!” trend currently rocking Hollywood), it did so in a way that’s…well, the results are debatable, aren’t they?

Sanctum-movie-posterOn the one hand, films like Despicable Me or Toy Story 3 looked magnificent in that format.  Other films, like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, were made even worse than they already are.  Still other films– films like Sanctum, to be specific– seem to have been made with a lot of thought paid to what the film would look like on a big, 3D screen…but not much else.  Take away the 3D from these films, and you’re left with something that’s barely even worth watching.  Had I seen Sanctum in 3D at, say, the Alamo Drafthouse, I bet you I would’ve been impressed by the tech on display.  I would’ve walked outta there saying– much like I did after Avatar– that the film was “meh”, but, damn did it look good.  Back at home, though, I’m forced to enjoy the flat, empty version of Grierson’s film.  And I don’t dig flat and empty.  So…no, Sanctum, you are not getting a good review.

I’ve just spent the last few minutes trying to picture a viewer that might really, really like Sanctum, but I’m coming up empty here.  The only possible fan I can imagine is one who’d be turned on by the film’s impressive cinematography or elaborate 3D effects.  That fan isn’t going to be moved by the not-3D version of the film unless they’re really, really bowled over by the cinematography.  If that sounds like it might be you, by all means, pick up a copy of Sanctum.  For the rest of you, I strongly suggest that you save your 2 hours.

The Blu-ray comes packaged with a slew of deleted scenes (bo-ring), a behind-the-scenes thing telling the “real story” of Sanctum (zzzz), a commentary with a few members of the cast and the director (which does have a few interesting moments relating the technical details of the shoot, but not enough for me to recommend a) renting the film or b) watching the film with the commentary), and a couple other behind-the-scenes sorta featurettes that you might watch once, forget about, and never watch again.  The video quality is– as it is with every Universal Blu-ray– amazing, as is the audio…but (as I’ve said a million times before) a boring piece wrapped in beautiful satin is still a boring piece.

Don’t bother, folks.  That’s the bottom line.

My Grade?  D-

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