If you are older than nine and weren’t totally stoned at the time, you probably remember that Avatar was beautiful, but only slightly better than a Captain Planet cartoon. This film is even worse. James Cameron’s 3-D cinematic techniques, employed to tell a story of an often-brutal adventure, stand like a cognitive dissonance against the stupid clichés that pass for dialogue in Alister Grierson’s Sanctum. At one point the adventurer (Richard Roxburgh), a man driven to extremes of human achievement without apparently harboring one human feeling, tells his troupe to move on after a terrible death. His son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) gasps at him, “How did you get to be this way?” To which he replies, “I know I haven’t been the best kind of father for you.” Yeah, I don’t know either.
Cameron serves as executive producer on this film, but his stamp is all over the picture, for better and worse. It employs his lovely 3-D cameras, so the first 15 minutes of the film are genuinely engaging on an aesthetic level: Plants snap back at us as the camera moves through brush; the deep focus of a tremendous cave of birds is intimidating in its realness. But big egregious Cameronisms dominate this film, too. Case in point: It’s got a grotesque obsession with showing us people drowning and depicts a dive that takes place while a storm beats down from overhead. (Call this Son of the Abyss, if you want.) Like Avatar, the pseudo-mysticism, third-world victims, para-military philosophy, and hard-ass demands of survival—which Cameron pretends to satirize but clearly loves—control the plot throughout this film.
I’m not sure at all what the title Sanctum signifies, though I imagine Cameron thinks it means something inner, you know, like a cave. In truth, there’s a much better movie about the horrors of spelunking, replete with monsters, tons of blood, and an actual substantive theme. It’s called The Descent; it’s not 3-D, and it’s good.