3D can’t save Sanctum

February 3, 2011

How does one of the world’s best-known directors follow up the most commercially successful film in cinematic history? For James Cameron, director of mega-blockbusters Avatar and Titanic, the answer is surprising. Taking a break from fantasy and iceberg-smashing romance, Cameron signed on as executive producer for Sanctum, the tale of a father and son on a life-threatening cave expedition.  The quality of the resulting film, though, is not surprising. Its 3D cinematography is engaging, if slightly hampered by occasionally weak character development.

Sanctum follows Frank (Richard Roxburgh), the head of a team of cave-divers setting out to explore a massive, unexplored cave network and claim the discovery for themselves. In their haste for glory, the team forgets proper safety equipment, finding themselves fighting for their lives when a freak storm begins flooding the cave.

Although Cameron had little actual involvement in the film’s production, Sanctum employs his characteristic, stunning 3D cinematography. Since much of the movie takes place underwater, the 3D effectively immerses the viewer—furiously cascading water pours over the theater’s seats, dead bodies float eerily overhead, and tense deep water action scenes jump off the screen. This lends an extra level of excitement and audience involvement to the dangerous cave-diving adventure.

The movie also chronicles Frank’s struggles outside the cave. Exhausted by the daily grind, he turns to a life of dangerous expeditions. His thirst for thrills lends the film its name—Frank seeks sanctuary in caves, even as they threaten to kill him. Roxburgh portrays the callous man well, particularly in his relationship with his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield). Their dynamic—a terrible father and sympathetic son—develops throughout the movie.

Sadly, the visual third dimension fails to compensate for the lack of depth among the movie’s supporting characters.  Aside from the Roxburgh/Wakefield duo, the cast consists largely of unknowns, who, due to the limited attention they receive in the film, will likely remain that way. Since Sanctum sacrifices emotional development in favor of pretty underwater shots, it’s not exactly heart-wrenching when most characters predictably meet their demise—the film simply fails to create sympathy for its peripheral cave-divers.

Then again, who sees a 3D cave action flick for its character development? If you can put aside the uselessness of the movie’s supporting cast, Sanctum’s excellent cinematography, 3D effects, and tight action sequences make it worth a view on the big screen.

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