Saturday, February 5, 2011

James Cameron's Sanctum

Watching Sanctum I was reminded of a wonderful scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). In a hot springs grotto, Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason) removes a mineral sample from a cluster of brilliant gems. This releases a raging torrent that threatens to flood the underground chamber. Where do you go when a cavern floods? Similarly, in Sanctum, or James Cameron’s Sanctum (I feel sorry for director Alister Grierson), as we are clearly informed by all previews and posters, a tropical storm in Papua New Guinea begins to flood an underground network of dry caverns where a group of intrepid explorers has been trying to follow an underground river to the sea. Both films are at their best when preliminary preparations for the expeditions are over, and when they are not wasting time with silly frictions between expedition members. When the focus is on gripping adventure and visual dazzle, both films entertain, Journey significantly more because it has James Mason establishing a memorable character.

Sanctum is especially marred by elements that detract from the thrilling adventure and the wow-inducing visuals. There’s too much clunking around of equipment and clacking away at computers, as well as moving around of characters too numerous to keep track of, before the storm hits and the nether regions flood. On top of that, the subterranean action is weighed down by silly friction between hard-driven Frank (Richard Roxburgh), the leader of the expedition, and idealistic son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), who feels scarred by Dad’s domineering character. In addition, the action is crippled by silly arguments about who’s staying behind or about the decency of using a dead woman’s dry suit. Jesus! In a life-or-death situation, you use the frickin’ dry suit! Then, of course, the resident gung-ho adventurer, Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), turns into a sniveling coward who swims off with the last oxygen tanks and later attacks Frank. Here, Gruffudd’s ravings constitute the worst acting in a film rife with wooden delivery of poorly written lines.

Had the action started earlier, had the story dispensed with 90% of its dialogue and 50% of its characters in order to spend its time on more underwater action and impressive cinematography, this would have been a great adventure movie. As is, Sanctum is intensely gripping here and there and often visually dazzling, due, I must admit as a 3-D Luddite, to some of the best 3-D images I have seen since the resurgence of the 3-D gimmick.

Image: In the very first scene in which two of the cave divers submerge, the camera lens, cut in half by the waterline, draws the surface right into your face, and you feel like you are submerging with the divers, which delivers a split second of panic since you aren’t wearing scuba gear!

Image: The explorers swim out of a claustrophobic tunnel into a vast underwater chamber where they float in watery space like space-walking astronauts, and 3-D brings you right into that weightless world.

Image: When the dry caverns begin to flood, the explorers scale a wall under a fall of water that gushes into your lap.

Image: Sanctum intensifies the claustrophobia by treating us to wonderful long shots looking endlessly down narrow tunnels.

Here, this use of 3-D is not simply a label slapped on the film to join in on the merry 3-D epidemic. Here 3-D is the film’s major attraction. Films with compelling stories and well-developed characters don’t need 3-D, but this film is all about it and would have been better without the dialogue and silly character conflicts. Go ahead, flood that cavern, but do it way earlier and keep us down there longer in an amazing underwater netherworld.

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