2011-06-15 17:44

In the low-budget 3D cave-diving adventure Sanctum, a little bit of rain causes a lot of death, by accident, murder and a bizarre amount of assisted suicide.

Who needs those chipper Chilean miners, anyway?

Eschewing such heartwarming tales, Sanctum, directed by Australian Alister Grierson and produced by 3D guru James Cameron, is more interested in the savage realities of survival.

A large expedition headed by grizzled Aussie explorer Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh) is knee-deep in mapping the mile-deep Esa'ala Caves of Papua New Guinea. Frank's less ambitious 17-year-old son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), along with the team's financier, daredevil Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) and his equally gung-ho girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), have just arrived.

Set deep in the jungle, the mouth of the expansive cave system (actually shot in Australia) is enormous and cylindrical. You half expect the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars to come shooting out with a giant worm in close pursuit.

In the complex labyrinth of cavernous chambers and underground rivers beneath the surface, the danger is less alien. Maneuvering by scuba through underwater crevices as tight as those of 127 Hours, Frank's mantra is that "panic is the enemy".

A storm is known to be approaching, but deep underground, they somehow still are caught unprepared when the storm develops into a cyclone, thus promising a life-threatening deluge in the caves.

Taking charge is Frank, a cold fish, indeed. "There's no God down here," he snaps at one moment with face hardened. Elsewhere, there's: "There are no rescue missions down here, only body recoveries!"

Everyone questions his harsh leadership (particularly his more kindhearted son), but Frank is gradually borne out. He may be gruff, but he knows caves and the limitations of what can be accomplished.

Those locked underground follow him, looking for the exit to the sea. The survivors are winnowed until, true to the tradition of so many such films, women and nonwhites gradually are dispatched. Some exit like Willy Wonka characters, neatly ruined by their foolhardiness.

A claustrophobia takes hold as they make their way from one chamber to the next, squeaking through the rock and water. Many of the set pieces in the cave system and the underwater shots are beautiful, but the lack of variation begins to feel like the recent film "Buried," which takes place entirely in a coffin.

Sanctum  is clearly in line with Cameron's adoration of subsurface exploration, a love affair at least since The Abyss. Sanctum is meant to prove that the 3D technology developed for his Avatar can be inexpensively adapted to simple genre films.

As a showcase for 3D, Sanctum is a failure. The depth of the images adds little to the experience and, for most of the middle of the film, is entirely forgotten. The darkness of the caves, at least, suits the darkened image of 3D.

Written by John Garvin and caver Andrew Wight, Sanctum claims to be "inspired by a true story." The basis, though, is a cave trip by Wight where a perilous storm nevertheless ended in all 15 surviving.

The film at least avoids that romantic lie of so many survivalist movies, that you can make it against all odds. Sanctum allows that heroism has its limits and that death must be accepted.

Jack Kevorkian would love it.

James Cameron brings his 3D magic to a claustrophobic story of underground cave explorers whose expedition is hit by a cyclone.
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