Friday, June 24, 2016

Film Review: Sanctum

Outdoor adventure movies come and go, and unfortunately few of them are really very good. Sanctum fits squarely in the "not-very-good" category.

The film follows a team of cave-divers, climbers and cave explorers on their quest to drop down a deep hole in Papa New Guinea in order to find a cave system that connects to the ocean. While exploring the depths of the cave a cyclone settles on land far above the team. The team's exit is blocked and the water begins to rise. This forces the team to descend deeper into the cave system and to try to find a way out to the ocean.




The plot is fascinating and it could have been an excellent outdoor adventure film. But alas, the writing is quite poor. The characters are weak. And there are some sequences that are just plain bad...

The writing team for this film is made-up of people who haven't done much when it comes to narrative drama. Screenwriter Andrew Wight has a number of underwater documentary films to his credit, but no real narrative film-writing experience. And screenwriter John Garvin has no other screenplays to his name. Director Alister Grierson has a handful of other movie titles under his belt, but they all appear to be second-rate B films.

It is clear that the reason this movie was made was because super-director James Cameron (Titanic, Avatar, The Abyss) was behind the production team. It's well-known that Cameron enjoys working with an underwater environment. He has pioneered a number of underwater and deep-sea filming techniques for both his narrative blockbusters as well as for some of his lesser-known documentary works.

The underwater cave diving sequences in Sanctum are cool. Some of them are really cool. And this element of the film lends credence to the entire -- sometimes painful -- experience of watching the movie. It is clear that the focus of the film was to play with this type of cinemetagrophy instead of telling a story that has some value.

Supposedly the story is based on real life events. It appears that the real-life version of the story wasn't anywhere near dramatic enough for Hollywood. The problem with the real-life story was that, while dramatic, everybody survived and there were no cardboard villains twisting their mustaches.

In 1988 Sanctum screenwriter Andrew Wight was on an expedition that mirrored the one in the film. His team was exploring a deep cave when a cyclone arrived causing a flash-flood which cut-off their exit route. Wight and his companions were forced deeper into the cave system to find their exit.

The core of the story is really interesting, but the characters and the situations some of the characters put themselves in are somewhat ludicrous.

There is a tendency in Hollywood-style outdoor adventure films to paint one character as a gruff, hard, outdoor-type guy. Usually this kind of character has seen it all. And often there's a coldness or a latent level of violence in the character. Think Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction, or Scott Glen in Vertical Limit, or even Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet. The character is so common in these types of movies, that he (and it usually is a he) is almost archetypal.

The problem with the gruff-outdoors-guy-who's-seen-it-all-and-is-an-ass because-of-it character is that he doesn't exist in real life. Yeah, there are a lot of anti-social climbers out there. And yeah, there are a lot of people who are obsessed with their objectives. And indeed, there are a lot of people out there who will push it to the limit and beyond to achieve their goals. But, you know what? Even when they're arrogant, most of these people are still nice. They want to talk about their passion and they want to bring you into it. And most of them don't see death on a daily basis the way these types of characters seem to.

The leader of the caving team, Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is just such a character. At one point in the movie a man is seriously injured and Frank decides that the best way to deal with him is to drown him instead of to try and get him out. This is absolutely crazy. And not only that, but dealing with an injured character that they're trying to keep alive would have been a whole lot more interesting than murdering him.

There is another archetypal outdoor adventure movie character as well. That's the billionaire playboy explorer, who is actually a coward. Ioan Gruffudd plays this character well because there's little to play. It's a boring and simplistic characterization that needs to disappear from adventure films.

This is a women and minorities die first movie. These types of films had their heyday with horror movies in the seventies, eighties and early nineties. I thought that modern filmmakers were done with such a terrible story arc, but I was wrong.

And from a climbing perspective, one woman dies after she gets her hair caught in a belay device and decides that she should try to cut it out...accidentally cutting the rope. She should have taken one of our classes...

Sanctum is not a good movie, but there are some interesting sequences and some moments where you're with the characters as they struggle to survive. But when they start to talk, things fall apart...

--Jason D. Martin

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