James Cameron keeps trying to make the case for 3D but perhaps he should work harder in making the case for quality stories. As a producer on Alister Grierson’s new 3D film Sanctum, Cameron is essentially putting his name on the picture and giving it his stamp of approval. That’s a big mistake since the 3D highlights the shortcomings of the film’s visual effects and does nothing to make us care more about the characters and their fight for survival. At best, the 3D makes the underwater caves of Sanctum slightly more immersive, but I don’t go to movies so I can be somewhat impressed by underwater caves.
At the heart of Sanctum lies an important question that we will all have to face at one point or another: how many people have to die for a son to bond with his father? The movie centers on Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who is working on his father Frank’s (Richard Roxburgh) expedition into an unexplored cave system. Footing the bill for the expensive project is Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) although the film doesn’t bother with providing Carl’s financial-incentive. At best, Carl just wants to pay millions of dollars for his own spelunking adventure (even though Frank is the real adventurer). Carl visits the site with his irritating girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and decides that since she and him have both climbed Everest, this big hole in the ground shouldn’t be a problem.
And then a storm hits and Josh, Frank, Carl, Victoria, and Frank’s assistant George (Dan Wyllie) become trapped. There’s also a non-white character but he gets knocked off with disturbing speed. Actually, half of his face gets knocked away, he breaks every bone in his body, and then Frank decides to end the guy’s suffering through a charming practice I have chosen to dub “mercy-drowning.” While it’s established that the cavers have knives, Frank thinks drowning is the kinder way to end this poor man’s suffering.
So we have an entitled rich ass-hole (can’t have a James Cameron movie without one of those), his shrill girlfriend, and a guy who not only drowns people as a way to end their suffering, but Frank also blames Josh when another diver drowns earlier in the film because Josh forgot to bring back-up air-tanks. The film wants us to want these people to survive.
While Cameron may be enamored of his 3D technology, he and Grierson should have realized that if you want us to root for people to survive, make them likable. Instead, when the cave begins to flood and since Victoria doesn’t have a wetsuit, Frank suggests she takes the suit of a dead female diver. Victoria shrieks, “I am not wearing the suit of a dead-woman!” as if Frank asked her to wear the dead diver’s skin. So now we’re not wondering if Victoria is going to make it. We’re hoping that she doesn’t. It doesn’t help that Gruffudd forgot how to act and talk in an American accent or that Roxburgh decides to growl all of his lines.
But as long as the 3D works, then at least it’s a fun visual spectacle, right? It could’ve been, but Sanctum‘s 3D only serves to show that this movie’s low visual effects budget. The opening scenes inside the cave look wretched as the 3D highlights the distance between the foreground and the green screen behind the actors. There’s an ugly attempt to connect the two with light bouncing off the water, but that just makes the problem worse. When Sanctum finally moves underwater and into cramped spaces, the 3D starts to click, but by then you no longer care because you’re not invested in the whiny characters and their struggle to survive.
James Cameron can champion 3D all he wants and in theory, Sanctum isn’t a bad film to get the 3D treatment. One of the major criticisms of 3D is how it makes everything look dim, but that works in Sanctum because the story dictates the limited amount of light available to the characters. It also makes sense to use 3D’s infinite depth of field for a movie about characters moving through various underwater depths. Unfortunately, the eagle-eye of 3D also picks up on the movie’s shoddy visual effects and even when it moves past the poor green screen work, we don’t really care if these losers make it back to the surface. Sanctum may have an added visual dimension, but the story and characters are painfully flat.