Friday, February 4, 2011

Sanctum: No solace here

Sanctum (2011) • View trailer for Sanctum
1.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, grim peril and disturbing images
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.4.11

Do not be misled, by the prominent use of James Cameron’s name, into believing that Sanctum is worthy of your time.

It isn’t.
Josh (Rhys Wakefield, left) and his father, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), prepare
to lead their comrades through a narrow underwater passageway: so tight that
they'll need to unhook their re-breathing equipment and push the tanks in front
of them, while carefully preserving the fragile hoses. Worse yet, they've no
idea what will be found on the other side...

I’m surprised Cameron would associate himself with such a stinker. Yes, the underwater work and caving cinematography are spectacular, and the 3-D effects are stylishly employed. Yes, some of the free-climbing stunt work is impressive. Yes, the level of claustrophobic tension is effectively conveyed.

But that’s all superficial stuff. As I’ve said so many times before, our hearts and minds are engaged by compelling characters and a solid story, not by an overwhelming assault of state-of-the-art cinematic technology.

And, at its core, Sanctum is a classic example of what I’ve dubbed the idiot plot: a movie that advances, from one scene to the next, only because each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times.

A woodenly acted idiot, at that. Spouting the worst dialogue I’ve endured from a major release in quite awhile.

Honestly, who told "scripters" Andrew Wight and John Garvin they could write? And who gave Alister Grierson the notion that he could direct? The performances here are flat, stiff and utterly lifeless, the dialogue bombastically melodramatic in the extreme. I'd say this was the stuff of a bad afternoon soap opera, but that insults soap operas.

This is the sort of movie where characters declaim the obvious at all times: the certain hallmark of screenwriters who don’t trust us viewers to keep up with their numb-nuts story. (It ain’t even that difficult. People get trapped deep underground. They struggle to get out. Period.) It’s the sort of purple melodrama where every other line is a howler such as "I didn’t come all this way to sit on the sidelines!" or "How did you become like this?"

Grierson obviously lacks the ability to cajole even remotely credible performances from his cast, and we can tell from the very first scene, as daredevil financier Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd) and his girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), are met at a seaplane dock by 17-year-old Josh (Rhys Wakefield). These three then exchange expository statements designed to explain who they are to each other, and what they’ve all done; the dialogue is delivered at a machine-gun clip, the three actors behaving as if they’ll forget their lines unless they get 'em out quickly.

The scene is clumsy, jarring and utterly unconvincing. And a depressingly accurate sign of things to come.

Josh’s father, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), has been exploring the South Pacific's Esa'ala Caves for months. Frank is a Master Diver and Seasoned Caver, as various characters repeatedly remind us. Josh, despite his youth, is "the best climber we’ve got," as various characters repeatedly remind us.

Carl, who has bankrolled this lengthy and expensive expedition, has decided to check on its progress; he brings Victoria along for the ride, because she’s something of a thrill-seeker herself; they met on a mountain climb. She's eager to see the inside of this cave, despite her absence of scuba experience.

Now, some might suggest that treating a visit to a deep-underground caving expedition like a girl scout picnic – particularly a venture known to involve underwater exploration – would be foolish for a woman who wouldn't know a snorkel from snack treat. But hey, that's only because she behaves like an idiot at all times. As does everybody else.

The moment Josh, Carl and Victoria join Frank and his longtime partner, Crazy George (Dan Wyllie), down in the cave, a "distant" storm system suddenly blasts into the region and – heigh ho! – it's everybody out of the pool. Alas, our five primary protagonists don't make it out in time – a few minor characters having been rather unhappily dispatched in the process – and they face the grim prospect of slowly drowning while their cave fills with water. And, naturally, the radio has been destroyed, so they can't alert topside colleagues of their plight.

Their only hope: donning wetsuits and re-breathers, and following a narrow underwater passage that Frank believes will lead to an ocean outlet.

OK, so now it's everybody into the pool.

A word about the aforementioned minor characters:

At its core, and forgive me for revealing this, Sanctum is the mainstream equivalent of Friday the 13th, Nightmare of Elm Street and a slew of other "dead teenager movies" ... by which I mean that characters are dispatched randomly, cruelly and often pointlessly. Virtue is not rewarded. Heroic effort is not rewarded. Nobody gets to check out nobly, while saving somebody else in an act of self-sacrifice. Basically, we spend the entire film watching people die, often rather graphically.

Indeed, these folks may not act worth a damn, but they do die convincingly. I guess that's something.

As a result, this narrative rapidly stops being exciting or suspenseful, and turns into a morbid waiting game, as we speculate about who'll perish next, and as a result of which hitherto unused act of stupidity. And when Wight and Garvin finally run out of acts of stupidity, they uncork a third-act plot contrivance that you simply won't believe.

Even after all the imbecilic behavior that has preceded this moment, you'll still be stunned into jaw-dropping amazement.

The hallmark of a bad director is the inability to coax believable performances from actors who’ve done much better work elsewhere. Gruffudd is the most obvious example: Although he made a major miscalculation with both Fantastic Four superhero entries, he's still fondly remembered for the under-appreciated Amazing Grace, for his Lancelot to Clive Owen’s King Arthur, and for his series of made-for-TV Horatio Hornblower films. He knows how to act.

But you'd never know that here, because Grierson allows (encourages?) Gruffudd to over-act atrociously.

Wakefield, too young to have had much of a career thus far, may not get one after this debacle; he simply can't emote. Parkinson is a one-note shrill complainer: the sort of weak-sister liability who gives women a bad rep. (I must observe, just in passing, that Wight and Garvin apparently have no respect for women in general, based on the way they're treated in this film.)

Roxburgh emerges with his integrity intact; the Australian veteran has learned enough, during his long career, to survive an ineffectual director. Frank may not be a complex character, but at least he's credible.

Wight, it should be mentioned, really isn't a writer; he's an underwater explorer and filmmaker who had the idea for Sanctum after surviving a 1988 disaster that left 15 people trapped underground in a remote cave system hidden beneath Australia's Nullarbor Plain. Everybody was saved during the subsequent rescue mission, but I guess that wasn't "sexy" enough for Wight and co-scripter Garvin – who also hasn't written anything prior to this mess – and so they opted for a "tougher" outcome.

At the risk of sounding snarky, I have to wonder why it took Wight 22 years to bring his concept to script; I'd sure hate to think he has been "shaping" his screenplay this entire time.

All else aside, this film's most dramatic moment comes early, during a helicopter overview of the mouth of the Minye sinkhole, on New Britain Island in Papua, New Guinea: a natural wonder profiled in a mesmerizing photo-and-text essay in the September 2006 issue of National Geographic. Filmmaking artifice takes over once our protagonists are inside, but that first shot is awesome.

And if you're smart, you’ll leave the theater immediately thereafter.

If Cameron wants to further exploit the impressive underwater cinematography tools he developed while making Titanic, he'd be well advised to stick with documentaries such as his genuinely absorbing Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss.

Hacks like Grierson, Wight and Garvin obviously can't be trusted with grown-up toys.

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