“Sanctum” worth seeing once

James Cameron’s newest film, “Sanctum,” deserves more credit than it’s been given, but isn’t worth seeing more than once.

Sanctum worth seeing once

Matthew Okada, Writer

A year after garnering worldwide acclaim for transporting audiences into the mind-blowing 3-D world of Pandora, James Cameron, director of “Titanic” and “Avatar” has produced a new 3-D spectacle, “Sanctum.”

Film appeals to senses

This time however, the camera journeys not to the skies and scenery of another planet, but deep into the core of our own. Relying on crisp, forceful, realistic 3-D effects, powerful emotional struggle and nail-biting suspense, “Sanctum” aims to impress and overpower your senses, sucking you unwillingly into the fathomless cave itself.

Opening intrigues audience

The film opens, somewhat strangely, to a shot of a young man in a wetsuit, suspended in a dark expanse of water, eyes closed, apparently dead. The camera pans and circles slowly, the 3-D imagery already giving you the strange, eerie feeling that you’re sinking alongside the character. Suddenly, his eyes pop open, and the scene switches to the sunny coast of Papua New Guinea. There, you meet Josh McGuire (Rhys Wakefield), the “lifeless” young man from the opening scene, dry, dressed and clearly alive, leaving you to question whether you had just seen the past, the future, or maybe just a dream.

Diverse characters add plotlines

From there, you are introduced to several characters, all of whom are involved in an exploration project to dive into the unexplored depths of a cave system in Papua New Guinea. Most important is Josh’s stolid, gritty, cave-obsessed father, Frank (Richard Roxburgh). Quickly, their father-son relationship is revealed to be cold and broken, apparently aggravated by the absence of Josh’s mother. You also meet the arrogant millionaire financier of the expedition, Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffud), his attractive but immature girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson) and Frank’s right-hand man George (Dan Wyllie).

Leaving the states, Josh, Carl and Victoria meet on the coast, and the three take a helicopter ride inland through the forests, towards the mouth of the massive cave system called Esa’ala. The epic cinematography and lush landscape visuals, actually filmed on location in Queensland, Australia, stir up memories of “Avatar,” and once again deliver that frighteningly real 3-D experience in all its glory. Finally, the treetop panoramas gives way to an overhead view of an unbelievably huge hole in the earth, a good quarter mile in diameter, sinking endlessly into blackness.

Meanwhile Frank and his team are holed up at what they call “Forward Base,” thousands of feet down in the cave’s maze-like passages, searching in earnest for the next step in the dive. Ultimately hoping to follow the flow of water out of the cave and into the ocean, the team is hell-bent on finding the elusive route into new territory. The stall in their progress leads to conflict between Carl and Frank, revealing Carl’s egotism, Frank’s stubbornness and the trouble the two will cause.

Uniting leads to drama

Eventually, the entire team is united at Forward Base, where tensions and tempers flare after the death of one of the female team members–– the first of many scenes of panic and death to come. The enmity between Josh and his father explodes as blame and disappointment blast an even deeper rift between the two. Soon, however, there are much bigger problems to worry about, as a massive storm on the surface becomes a cyclone and begins to flood the cave system. From there on, the film becomes a dark, claustrophobic, oxygen-deprived, soaking-wet battle for survival. The team pushes deeper into the cave, fighting exhaustion, rivers of freezing cold water, dwindling resources and each other.

Though “Sanctum” is neither the entertainment gem of the year, nor remotely suitable for anyone with a fear of tight spaces, darkness, drowning or dead bodies, it does deserve a little more credit than it has critically received. It absolutely succeeds in smothering you with both the beauty and the terror of the cave, which becomes something of a character all its own. The acting, characters and plot are, on some accounts, stale, but the movie is worth seeing once–– and only once–– for the charged sense of awe, fear and intensity it inspires. At the least, “Sanctum” will have you holding your breath until the bitter end.

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