Produced by James Cameron and driven by the groundbreaking 3-D technology he created for “Avatar,” “Sanctum” is more spectacle than story, though screenwriters John Garvin and Andrew Wight have done their best to wring compelling drama out of the suicidal misadventures of spelunkers trapped in a flooded cave.
The movie is inspired, however loosely, by Wight’s real-life experience leading a diving expedition through a daunting system of underwater caves, and it would be impossible to ignore the human tragedy in this chronicle of men and women waging an often-futile battle to survive.
Hamstrung by insufficient supplies, inexperience and increasingly frayed nerves, they are ill-prepared for the near-biblical storm that leaves them stranded and presumed dead miles below sea level.
Leading them through this watery subterranean tomb beneath Papua New Guinea is irascible explorer extraordinaire Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), described by his billionaire backer (Ioan Gruffudd) as the Christopher Columbus of cave divers.
Perhaps he is, but Frank can’t stop the rain, much less protect his overmatched colleagues from themselves.
Simmering in the subtext of “Sanctum” is the escalating tension between Frank and his son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), who doesn’t share his father’s passion for caves and cringes at his perceived lack of compassion. In matters of life and death, Frank is a hard-hearted pragmatist. As the body count rises, Josh comes to see him as a reckless daredevil, more concerned with individual glory than the collateral damage he leaves behind.
That Frank and Josh ultimately arrive at an understanding is neither a surprise nor sufficiently gratifying to redeem a father-son rivalry that feels contrived from the start.
The real drama of “Sanctum” involves the party’s desperate struggles to stay alive, and the grim fates awaiting those whose efforts fall short.
Director Alister Grierson casts an unflinching eye on the victims of Frank’s ill-fated expedition, whose deaths are depicted in grisly detail. Whether that’s enough to keep viewers captivated for nearly two hours depends on their tolerance for artfully induced claustrophobia compromised in places by choppy film editing. The pervading gloom, diverting at first, eventually becomes merely tedious.
Starring Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Wakefield, Alice Parkinson
Written by John Garvin, Andrew Wight
Directed by Alister Grierson
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes