Sanctum 3D

Year: 2011
Production Co: Sanctum Australia
Director: Alister Grierson
Producer: Andrew Wight/James Cameron
Writer: John Garvin/Andrew Wight
Cast: Rixchard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Ioan Gruffud, Dan Wyllie

What the world's biggest filmmaker did next...

While talking up Avatar 2 and 3, James Cameron lent his name and the groundbreaking Fusion 3D camera he developed to middle-budget ($30m) US/Australian thriller Sanctum 3D, and he's been building some impressive buzz on the publicity trail with director Alister Grierson (Kokoda).

The film tells the story of a team of cave diver adventurers led by the grizzled Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and a crew consisting of his semi-estranged son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), the brash investor Carl (Ioan Gruffud) who's bankrolling the expedition, funny sidekick tech George (Love My Way's Dan Wyllie) and other assorted narrative foil.

With a cyclone closing in on the New Guinea-set cavern system, it's time to pull the team out. But when nature pips them at the post and water starts to thunder down into the two mile-deep base station, a situation that's already gone bad gets much worse. A boulder seals the remaining team members' exit and the only way is down into the unexplored chambers to try and find the way out to the ocean they all hope exists.

Like in Avatar, Sanctum's camerawork is among the best 3D we've seen so far. As you might have heard it's not one for claustrophobics or aquaphobics. Grierson and cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin do a fantastic job of getting the most out of the location and sets, the terror of tiny underwater passageways and the grandeur of vast open caves palpable and visceral. The script as well as the direction wrangle a great sense of ever-tightening tension and the film's punctuated by action sequences that will have you wincing or sitting on the edge of your seat.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, as 2010's Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland proved, 3D alone doesn't make the movie. Every time someone in Sanctum 3D opens his or her mouth, the whole thing falls embarrassingly on its face.

Ten minutes in you can begin amusing yourself by checking off the cheesiest lines you've heard from a million bad B movies. Each new clanger will make you roll your eyes, groan and suspend any investment you've made thus far. It's as if the script was a parody of genre tropes like the Airplane/Flying High or The Naked Gun, and the action scenes are welcome respite instead of seamless parts of the story.

And while everybody involved has done great work in the past (Rhys Wakefield in The Black Balloon, Ioan Gruffud in Amazing Grace, Richard Roxburgh in Blue Murder), someone forgot to tell them the cameras were rolling – it seems like a first rehearsal before all the bugs have been ironed out. Over the top and over eager is the order of the day as Gruffud camps it up as the overbearing financier-turned-villain and Wakefield phones in a drama school-level performance as Frank's smart but disconnected son.

But it's Roxburgh who reaches his nadir as the growly Frank. Christian Bale almost spoiled the character of Batman in Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight with his angry/forceful whisper thing, and Roxburgh turns it up to 11 as he scowls heavy-lidded through the dire-logue. It's far from the only time Roxburgh has graced onscreen dross (Van Helsing, Mission: Impossible 2, Stealth, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) – he's either choosing the worst possible projects half the time or the industry needs to reassess his talent.

The other problem is that too many aspects of Sanctum 3D are altogether too predictable. It adheres to the Alien template, fate picking characters off in ways that are supposed to shock us but which – if you've seen any sci-fi thriller in the last quarter century – you'll guess way in advance. Even the talismans and anchors that pepper the plot are way too obvious at times (you don't think that shark-tooth light Josh resents so much won't make a critical appearance later on?).

Of course Sanctum 3D isn't the first predictable movie we've ever seen, but those that succeed narratively do so in their execution despite their lack of originality. In this case, there are just too many delivery issues. The problems in the writing and acting obscure what could have been a smart, taut thriller far too glaringly.

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