If done right, a “man versus nature” disaster picture can effectively get the pulse pounding. Couple the sheer implacability of the antagonist with the difficulties of survival and a situation that’s direr than that of a traditional thriller, and the result is usually an involving feature. 2011’s Sanctum is a serviceable instance of an effective disaster movie in which the nail-biting set-pieces and technical competency outweighs the clumsy scripting and wooden acting. For the advertising campaign, James Cameron’s name has been touted a lot despite merely serving as an executive producer. Though he’s the focal point of the marketing campaign, it’s unclear how much creative input Cameron actually had beyond lending his 3-D technology to the project. Sure, it’s the type of story he would go for, but it’s doubtful Cameron had much influence. After all, it’s not three hours long and there’s not a great deal of heart or emotion behind the material.

Sanctum is loosely based on an experience which befell co-screenwriter (and occasional James Cameron collaborator) Andrew Wight. Looking to explore one of the last unmolested areas of the world, no-nonsense expert spelunker Frank (Roxburgh) and his team have set up base camp at a Papua New Guinea cave system. Thrill-seeking playboy Carl (Gruffudd) is the one funding the operation, as he is looking to make his exploratory mark. Overworked and tired, Frank is joined on the last leg of his research by Carl himself, as well as Frank’s son Josh (Wakefield) and Carl’s inexperienced girlfriend Victoria (Parkinson). However, a bad storm hits the area and turns into a hurricane, and the rushing waters trap a number of assorted individuals within the treacherous, unexplored bowels of the cave. With the cave rapidly flooding, the group have no choice but to push forward in the hopes of finding another way to reach the surface.

Is it possible for a movie to overcome a lousy screenplay if it is otherwise an effective, technically proficient motion picture? In the case of Sanctum, the answer is yes. Sanctum‘s dramatic elements are consistently weak, with conventional, shallow characters, disaster film clichés, and predictable character relationships. The friction between Josh and Frank is constantly formulaic, and follows a generic path to a predictable conclusion. Likewise, the conflict between Frank and Carl (i.e. between the grizzled veteran and the inexperienced rich outsider) is predictable and usually ineffective. Clichés do not always instantly mean fail, but there’s absolutely no depth to these stereotypical individuals, and, aside from Frank, the characterisations are stale and boring. Also, the dialogue is constantly on-the-nose and at times dangerously cheesy. It may be possible to like the characters due to surface-level attributes, but the disaster genre needs something more.

Yet, Sanctum looks gorgeous. Whether above or below the water, director Alister Grierson and cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin managed to capture some astonishing images of natural beauty. Whatever line exists between manufactured sound stages and authentic locations is imperceptible, and the authenticity of the proceedings will augment a viewer’s claustrophobic apprehension. Additionally, when the characters close their mouths to allow for Grierson to get down to business with the action set-pieces, Sanctum positively comes alive. Consistently nail-biting, the central premise was ripe for tension-filled moments, and the film does not disappoint. Grierson was able to earn a lot of mileage from milking the riveting, unbearably intense predicaments the characters face. The sense of danger and urgency rarely relents, even when the end is ostensibly in sight. The pulse-pounding, atmospheric score by David Hirschfelder also amplifies the intensity. Added to this, Sanctum is an R-rated film which is not gory for the sake of exploitation but instead for the sake of realism. For once, the vision of a filmmaker has not been compromised to draw in a bigger audience with a family-friendly PG-13 rating.

As previously discussed, the marketing for Sanctum emphasises James Cameron’s fingerprints on the project to siphon off the magic dust which was left behind by Avatar. Admittedly, it’s a clever way to entice audiences, but it would seem Cameron had little to do with the movie – Sanctum is just an Aussie disaster movie with an influential fairy godmother. Of course, being yet another 3-D venture, the big question on everyone’s minds is whether the extra dimension is worth it. Luckily, the film was not subjected to a quick post-production conversion, but was instead shot in 3-D, and it shows. The 3-D effects are not perfect, but they are impressive, not to mention a decent fit for the movie as it affords a sense of depth to the dense cave system. Plus, the dimness associated with 3-D is not much of a problem since Sanctum is a naturally dark motion picture. Nevertheless, the gimmick is inessential, and it’s hardly worth the extra money.

The cast is a mixed bag. On the one hand, Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge!) is effective as the badass, tough-as-nails Frank. From beginning to end, Roxburgh is focused and convincing, and he’s a terrific tough guy who’s somewhat reminiscent of Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quatrich from Avatar. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gruffudd played his playboy millionaire role with the temperament of a school bully and an unconvincing American accent. It would appear that Carl was modelled after Paul Reiser’s role in James Cameron’s Aliens, but Gruffudd is no Paul Reiser. All the rest of the stars seem like acting school dropouts for all the believability they bring to their roles.

From a purely technical standpoint, the ability to create an intense underwater picture of this sort in 3-D is commendable in itself. Fortunately, despite its shortcomings, the final product is both technically adept and a fine addition to the “man vs. nature” adventure genre. There are so many action-adventure movies released every year, but so few of them can generate any genuine excitement or tension. Therefore when a movie manages this, it’s worth recommending. Sanctum is too wobbly in its foundation to be considered great, but it is well-crafted and impressively executed. Plus, beyond its value as a piece of popcorn-selling entertainment, Sanctum represents a marker for where the Aussie film industry is hopefully heading. It is indeed exciting to see Aussie filmmakers capably standing alongside their Hollywood counterparts.

6.8/10