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“Sanctum”: Spelunking for James Cameron

"Sanctum": Spelunking for James Cameron

This review was originally posted February 4, 2011. It has been reprinted for the film’s home video release.

Let’s be honest. Any success had this weekend by “Sanctum” will depend in large part on the appeal of these few words: Executive Produced by James Cameron. He’s the biggest part of the poster, the loudest bit of the opening credit sequence, and perhaps the most compelling feature of the entire promotional campaign. The director, Alister Grierson, is a relative newcomer from Australia with a single feature film under his belt, 2006’s “Kokoda”. Aside from Ioan Gruffudd of “Fantastic Four” and “King Arthur” fame, the bulk of the cast comes from Australian television, and has little name recognition in the US or internationally. This is James Cameron’s picture.

And so, watching the film I found myself spending quite a bit of time on the lookout for this larger-than-life producer’s influence. After witnessing the ads one gets the impression that, short of the entire cast suddenly turning blue, the evidence of Cameron’s handiwork should be ubiquitous and perhaps a bit booming. As it turns out, that isn’t exactly the case. “Sanctum” gives one the impression that this box-office powerhouse met Andrew Wight (the co-writer, whose near-death experience cave-diving inspired the whole thing), got terribly excited, gave him a couple of pointers and a few 3-D cameras, and then ran off to draw some Na’Vi in wetsuits for “Avatar 2” storyboards.

Playing “spot the Cameron” is a fun way to pass the time during a screening of this perhaps otherwise uninteresting undersea spelunk. The obvious starting point is, of course, the use of 3D. But as the film launches, there’s a bit of Cameron-esque idealism that comes through almost before the showy visuals become noticeable. Like “Avatar”, perhaps the most blatant thematic point of the first 20 minutes seems to be that you really just shouldn’t mess with nature. Our American businessman-hero, Carl Hurley, is here to take advantage of this extraordinary cave system for financial gain. The exploitation of a luscious 3D-enriched natural landscape, only to be foiled by an infuriated Mother Nature is at the precipice of becoming a James Cameron trope.

Yet here, instead of the fetishized-though-dynamic native Na’Vi leading the fight against the dark side of humanity, it’s a monsoon. This bad weather, moreover, is presented at the beginning of the film alongside stereotypical images of Papua New Guinea and intellectually negated native populations in general. The storm picks up and we see the medicine man, covered in the hallmarks of the idealized “noble savage,” and of course he doesn’t speak. The Papuan character who actually gets lines has to speak in his native language with subtitles; of course he only has one or two things to say before he falls head first onto the bedrock of a cave and gets a prompt mercy killing.

The women are kind of problematic as well, which is where the James Cameron influence seems to falter. After all, the director was praised for his three dimensional (or at least positively constructed) female characters well before his work in 3D technology. The two women in “Sanctum” are both far cry from Sarah Connor, hysterical and unstable characters that both meet their doom due to panic, and a panic that strikes none of the male cast. Cameron, it seems, lurks more behind the ideas behind “Sanctum” than in the meat of the film and its characters.

But back to that 3D, the Cameron machinery that launched the movie and will bring it most of its box office: In Daniel Zalewski’s expansive Guillermo del Toro profile in this week’s New Yorker, the subject of an interview turns to “Avatar”. Del Toro loves 3D because of the visual “depth,” what he calls the “aquarium effect.” This is exactly why Cameron’s cameras are perfect for the visuals in “Sanctum”: 3D is perfect for underwater images. The rich shots of the eponymous underwater cavern itself, in its cathedral-like glory, are magnificent. Even the water bubbles are vivid, at least in the higher points of the film, and the feeling of being stuck in the aquarium-like tunnels is pervasive. Even if you don’t feel emotionally attached to the characters, or particularly invested in the outcome of this expedition, you totally feel submerged.

“Sanctum”’s finale takes place under a series of tide pools, as we swim beneath the land, only glimpsing the sunlight through a few puddle gaps in the beach above. Simply put, looking at the surface of water from underneath, in exceptionally well-done 3D, is damn cool. It is in those puddles, as well as the bubbles of air, dripping stalactites and vast cavernous spaces where Cameron’s influence is most strongly felt. Fortunately for him, these are also the high points of this otherwise questionable aqueous thriller, out of which perhaps only its executive producer emerges from the deep.

“Sanctum” is now available on DVD and VOD.

Recommended If You Like: “The Abyss”; “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”; “Avatar”

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