No Depth

The first minutes of Sanctum have breathtaking visuals reminiscent of an IMAX film. A helicopter nimbly swoops over remote wooded terrain in Papua New Guinea before circling what looks like a massive cenote that plunges down for hundreds and hundreds of feet to the surface of a circular lake. This proves to be the entrance to a labyrinthine and mostly unexplored cave system that is being probed by scuba divers aided by an aqua-robot used for video reconnaissance and a topside support team with elaborate communications gear.

Sanctum: dead in the water

Cave flick takes a shallow dive

The first minutes of Sanctum have breathtaking visuals reminiscent of an IMAX film. A helicopter nimbly swoops over remote wooded terrain in Papua New Guinea before circling what looks like a massive cenote that plunges down for hundreds and hundreds of feet to the surface of a circular lake. This proves to be the entrance to a labyrinthine and mostly unexplored cave system that is being probed by scuba divers aided by an aqua-robot used for video reconnaissance and a topside support team with elaborate communications gear.

By the time we follow these intrepid explorers down and down to the underground staging area from which they hope to push forward to find a navigable passage that will eventually spill out into the distant ocean, our initial gasps have turned to groans as these cardboard characters deliver cringe-worthy dialogue reminiscent of bad amateur theatre.

Leading the expedition is Frank, a grizzled legend whose hard-bitten style is admired by many — but not by his son, Josh, who despite being a brilliant climber has always felt that he has never earned the respect of his emotionally distant father. In their efforts to leave no cliché unexplored, the scriptwriters have included a 30-something zillionaire and amateur caver named Carl; this arrogant blowhard is funding the expedition and drops in occasionally to get on Frank’s nerves. On this latest fly-in, Carl has brought along his new trophy babe, who has no diving experience and is thus guaranteed to cause lots of problems when the plot kicks in. Rounding out the team are a skilled female diver, an old buddy of Frank’s who is now prone to getting the bends, and a noble local man who is like an underground Sherpa (and pretty much has “kill me off early” stamped on his forehead).

And for a dash of the exotic there are several shots of aborigines complete with elaborate patterns daubed on their bodies in white paint ­— and a bone through the nose for good measure. It’s maybe safe to assume that these depictions are anthropologically accurate, but the fact that they never say or do anything and have no bearing on the plot whatsoever makes their presence a bit of a silly cheat.

After sketching in the father-son hostilities and the sometimes-barbed relations between Frank and Carl, the movie wastes little time in laying on the perils. A previously undetected passage reveals itself and two divers wriggle into what eventually opens into a lake contained within a gigantic rock cathedral. But sudden tragedy befalls the expedition. And even before the resulting anger and fear has time to subside, a vicious tropical storm arrives a couple of days early, flooding the cave entrance and trapping the divers underground. Unable to retreat, their only chance is to go forward — and hope like hell that there really is a way out to the distant ocean.

Although superficially exciting, there is a claustrophobic predictability as Sanctum tries to ratchet up the suspense. There are displays of risk-taking bravery and an act of noble self-sacrifice, counterbalanced by moments of foolishness, cowardice and despicable betrayal. It’s standard-issue plotting, made worse because these actions are always performed by the person you’d most expect it from. And does the son finally prove himself to grumpy old pops? As if I’d ever tell.

James Cameron gets a producer’s credit for this Australian movie, mostly because his 3-D cameras from Avatar were used. But as visually compelling as this and other 3-D movies can be, it is now apparent that when you visit the Cineplex and slip on those fancy glasses a technical flaw manifests: even as the physical world acquires extra depth, important things like character and plot are flattened into one dimension. M

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