It's easy to sit back and enjoy the adventure films of the 1950s, '60s and '70s with a detached regard today, but the question is: were they as corny then as they're often considered now? There's something hokey yet irresistible about 'Fantastic Voyage' and 'The Poseidon Adventure' and 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' as viewed through a CGI-jaded eye. Surely, someone must not have been so tickled by the transparent artifice of it all at the time. (Let's be fair, though: the bar for on-screen spectacle was on a whole different level back then.)
To be perfectly clear, 'Sanctum' is itself corny, and tremendously so. 2–3 servings of vegetables a day corny. Chief export of Iowa corny. And while it approaches its life-or-death dilemmas with an entirely straight face, the sense of peril is undone at nearly every turn by paint-by-numbers characterizations and cringe-worthy lines of dialogue. It's little wonder, then, why James Cameron ('Avatar') opted to tag along as an executive producer -- it's a project that encapsulates all of his worst tendencies and hopes to excuse them by way of some marginally effective 3D technology.
In Papua, New Guinea, where everyone speaks in hyperbole, the World's Last Great Explorer (Richard Roxburgh) is plumbing the depths of the Mother of All Caves when his boss, the Obnoxious American (Ioan Gruffudd), and his girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) decide to drop in. The Explorer's Son (Rhys Wakefield) would rather be anywhere else, and once a cyclone shows up with timing worthy of 'Jurassic Park', these four -- along with the Comic Relief (Dan Wyllie) -- share his sentiment. Together, they are forced to find a way to the surface before drowning, or worse, in the rapidly-flooding caves.
Apparently inspired by the real-life experiences of co-writer/Cameron buddy Andrew Wight, 'Sanctum' plays out less like a true story and more like a worst-case-scenario checklist. Hypothermia? Check. Decompression sickness? Check. Falling rocks and tangled lines? Check and check. There are plenty of informed touches as to proper diving procedures and feasible hurdles to overcome, but the stakes between the equally expendable characters are non-existent -- not to mention the inexplicable flash-forward opening, which manages to serve as both a spoiler and a cheat. The men squabble, the women panic, nobody is worth rooting for and, appropriately enough, there seems to be no end in sight.
Even with the lion's share of cheesy lines ("There are no rescue missions down here -- only body recoveries" and so on), Roxburgh fares best as the gruff leader, and as the film decides (too late) to become something of a father-son bonding drama rather than a prolonged shouting match between the two, Wakefield matches him in unspoken harmony. (And then they recite poetry together, and the whole illusion of investment is washed right away.) On the opposite end of the spectrum falls Gruffudd, playing his macho millionaire with the temperament of a middle school bully and the World's Least Convincing American Accent, and Parkinson, who counts among the cast's two women (well, the two with speaking roles anyway) and therefore seems doomed to play one of the more skittish and unreasonable individuals around.
The group's resulting adventures prove more monotonous than exciting, and the few close calls that do work on a visceral level all have one excellent thing in common: characters that are wearing diving masks cannot speak awful dialogue. Alister Grierson's priorities as a director clearly reside more with conveying the scope of the scenery and less with eliciting non-hysterical performances. To be fair, the lighting of the 3D presentation is surprisingly good, given the dim glasses, but the script is already too dim to enjoy, and the deeper our survivors go, the less convincing the environments look.
Overall, 'Sanctum' has the feel of a science-center show, dragged out to 110 minutes and embellished with some head wounds and F-bombs. But maybe with a little luck, twenty years from now, the World's Last Great Film Geek will find themselves staring down a prime piece of adventure kitsch instead of wishing that their ten dollars went toward something a little less waterlogged.