Watery grave 

Cameron's Sanctum drowns in poor writing

Let's begin with a news item from last week in which Vanity Fair published its annual list of Hollywood's 40 top earners of 2010. It's tempting to spend the greater part of this review making witty and snide remarks about the people on this list, especially since Sanctum is such a below average film, but I'll try to exhibit some restraint. And really, is any further commentary necessary regarding the fact that Adam Sandler made more money last year ($50 million) than all but six people in Tinseltown?

Okay, just one more: Vin Diesel made more in 2010 ($18 million) than Martin Scorsese. People, if you stop going to see every sequel to The Fast and the Furious (four and counting), they will stop making them.

But I bring up this list because of the man in the top position, who you will not be surprised to learn is James Cameron. What might surprise you is that Cameron made two-and-a-half times more money last year than number two on the list, Johnny Depp—and Captain Jack Sparrow made $100 million. Cameron didn't actually make a film last year, but that didn't prevent him from taking in a cool quarter-billion dollars worth of Avatar residuals.

With that kind of dough you can pick your projects, which makes Cameron's decision to lend a few bucks, some 3D camera equipment and, most importantly, his name to Sanctum all the more odd. He's credited as the producer, but if you watched any of the previews or commercials for the film, in which his name is prominently displayed, you'll probably enter the theater with heightened expectations.

click to enlarge In underwater caves, no one can hear you scream.
  • In underwater caves, no one can hear you scream.

If you do, prepare to be disappointed. Avatar this is not. It's not even close to on par with The Abyss, the 1989 underwater alien thriller that Cameron wrote and directed. They're no aliens in Sanctum, which is set almost entirely in a labyrinth of underwater caves in Papua New Guinea. There is, however, an unoriginal plot, soap opera-level acting and some of the least-subtle foreshadowing I've seen in quite some time.

But it is pretty, at least for a while. The problem is that the most riveting shots, as well as those that make the best use of the 3D cameras, almost all occur above ground, with wonderful panning shots of the South Pacific rainforest and the enormous gaping hole in the ground that looks right out of Return of the Jedi. The first few scenes where our team of explorers descends into the cave are also compelling, but by the 20-minute mark of the film it becomes easy to forget that Sanctum includes that extra dimension.

The team of 10 or so explorers is attempting to map the sprawling network of underground—and mostly underwater—caves, in hopes of finding a route to the ocean. There's the billionaire investor, his girlfriend, a few locals, and most importantly world-renowned diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and his 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield). There are others, but let's be honest, if we don't know their names, they're going be the first to bite it when the caves start to flood, thanks to a nasty above-ground monsoon.

The rest of the film revolves around finding that escape route. It's pretty standard mediocre thriller fare, with claustrophobic squeezes, dramatic deaths, mutinous crewmembers and father-son bonding. But it's the writing that really fails here:

"This cave's not gonna beat me .... This cave will kill you in a heartbeat ... You understand, whatever happens down here, never give up ...There's no such thing as God down here ... I'm sorry I could never be a good father to you ... You must save the Na'vi."

Okay, I made that last one up, but the others are all too real, delivered without irony. By the midway point of Sanctum, the most entertaining thing about the film is trying to figure out who dies next. Also, I started really wishing for aliens, or at least a shark or two.

To be fair, Sanctum isn't nearly as bad as Country Strong, which set a high bar with which all bad films will be judged this year. In fact, I saw Sanctum the same day I bought my tickets for next week's screening of The Sounds of Science at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, during which rock trio Yo La Tengo will provide a live score for eight underwater documentary shorts by French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Painlevé. As I grimaced my way through 105 minutes of Sanctum, it occurred to me how much better the film would be if similar measures were taken: Cut the dialogue, throw in a riveting soundtrack and enjoy the scenery. In other words, if you must see Santum, wait for the DVD—and then make liberal use of the mute button.

Sanctum continues at the Carmike 10.

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