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Master diver Frank McGuire has explored the South Pacific's deep underground Esa-ala Caves for months. But when his exit is cut off in a flash flood during a hurricane, Frank's team - including his 17-year-old son Josh and financier Carl Hurley - are forced to radically alter plans. With dwindling supplies, the crew must navigate an underwater labyrinth to make it out. The unavoidable question: Can they survive?
For more about Sanctum and the Sanctum Blu-ray release, see Sanctum Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on May 19, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Director: Alister Grierson
Starring: Rhys Wakefield, Allison Cratchley, Christopher James Baker, Ioan Gruffudd, Richard Roxburgh, Alice Parkinson
» See full cast & crew
Sanctum Blu-ray Review
"There's no God down here. We're bits of dust passing through..."
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, May 19, 2011
Just in case Neil Marshall's The Descent didn't convince you that caving was a terrible idea, along comes executive producer James Cameron and hand-picked director Alister Grierson's Sanctum to finish the job. Falling debris, drownings, hypothermia, rock slides, broken air canisters, claustrophobia, budding madness, climbing accidents, tragic deaths and good ol' fashioned murder (pronounced "muuuurder," with one raised eyebrow) are just a few of the dangers brimming beneath the surface of Cameron and Grierson's underground, underwater and, yes, underwhelming quote-unquote thrill ride. In fact, the biggest shock that lies in wait for the uninitiated is that the film isn't very good at all. Stale performances, stocky storytelling, water-logged dialogue, predictable twist after predictable turn, mediocre visual effects and some of the worst green screen work in recent memory... if it weren't for the film's more able-bodied second half, I'd be making comparisons to Skyline right now. Even Grierson's use of Cameron's highly touted 3D cameras and shooting methodology sinks whenever it tries to swim. Dimensionality is artificially boosted at the cost of any real filmic depth, a hyper-digitized sheen undermines the photography, and the film looks about as low-rent as it plays.
Loosely based on co-writer/producer Andrew Wight's real-life, near-death experience with a deadly cave-in and his subsequent 1989 documentary Nullarbor Dreaming, Sanctum tells the decidedly fictional story of a team of cavers, divers and adventure seekers who suddenly find themselves trapped underground when a fierce storm cuts off their escape route. Even before the storm rolls in though, tragedy strikes. 17-year-old Josh McGuire (Rhys Wakefield) watches helplessly as the no-nonsense professional leading the expedition, his father Frank (Richard Roxburgh), is forced to let a woman drown when an accident disables her breathing apparatus. Of course, Josh blames dear old dad -- mainly because, at some point, sons struggle with the realization that their fathers aren't gods -- and slowly begins to question Frank's motives and pragmatic assessment of the situation. It doesn't help that Frank is a bit of an insensitive brute who blames the dead woman for making poor choices, just before tossing a sliver of guilt in Josh's lap. Not that jet-setting couple Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd) and his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) seem to care. With a dangerous storm rolling in, radio interference cutting off communications and team synergy floundering, Victoria chirps "there's nothing can be done for the dead at altitude" and Carl goes diving. The rest is clockwork. Storms rage, waters surge and Josh, Frank, Carl, Victoria and two others -- Frank's good friend George (Daniel Wyllie) and a Papua New Guinea native by the name of Luko (Cramer Cain) -- have to rely on each other to find a way out of their would-be tomb.
Roxburgh is Sanctum's guardian angel. No matter how dim or diluted the film becomes, he keeps a cool head, a veteran's poise and emerges as the most convincing bloke in the bunch. A surprise, considering Roxburgh is no stranger to campy, scene-chewing performances and slippery genre pics (Mission Impossible 2, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing and Stealth, just to name a few). If you thought that honor would fall to Gruffudd, you're not alone. (You're also not paying much attention either. Gruffudd has just as many skeletal performances and cheesy flops in his closet.) Donning a ridiculously chipper, wholly unnecessary non-accent, he grins, grimaces and breaks down right on cue, overacting and overextending his chops with every toothy bite. Wakefield is a talented young actor, but Wight and John Garvin's cumbersome screenplay tasks the poor kid with a manic teen boy who bounces from extreme to extreme without much middle ground. He does his best -- and even shines for a solid twenty-minutes when he and Roxburgh are isolated from the rest of the group -- it just isn't enough to counter the weight of the film's glaring flaws. The rest of the actors find a comfy spot between Roxburgh and Gruffudd. Cain is perfectly stoic but woefully underused, Wyllie earns a few much-needed laughs but isn't given much to work with when drama invades the story, and Parkinson hurries along to keep up with Gruffudd, attempting to establish a respectable female presence while screaming, panicking, complaining and spitting chunky F-bombs into Wight and Garvin's napkin as if each one was a gristly bit of meat.
It all unravels with direct-to-video restlessness and uneasiness that eventually -- strike that, inevitably -- pits one character against the next in a tiresome kill-or-be-killed, alpha-male showdown. For the survivors scrambling to escape the depths of the Esa'ala Cave, it's a conflict born from desperation. For the filmmakers though, it's an all-too-conventional conflict born from the fear that audiences just won't care if someone on screen doesn't go a little nutters. At its core, Sanctum is a tale of survival. Wight's near-death experience below the surface of Australia's Nullarbor Plain certainly was. Why Grierson, Wight, Garvin and presumably Cameron chose to take the path most traveled is beyond me. A simpler film -- straight drama, straight thrills -- would have been a far better film. Sanctum still gets a couple of things right. When Grierson isn't preoccupied with setting up a 3D shot, the sense of tightness and claustrophobia becomes palpable. When Roxburgh and Wakefield are quarantined from the rest of the cast, their on-screen relationship pays off. And once Wight and Garvin dispense with all the exposition, garden-variety anxiety and contrived hysteria, the story and characters start to click, even if only momentarily. There's a decent flick buried somewhere inside of Sanctum, there really is. Maybe you'll have more luck digging it up than I did.
Sanctum Blu-ray, Video Quality
Ooph. Sanctum isn't pretty, thanks in large part to a problematic source. Black levels are sometimes muted, skintones typically appear a tad washed out, textures don't exactly pop, depth is fragmented (for lack of a better term), noise reduction has been applied here and there (in post, not for the film's Blu-ray release) and many a scene looks as if it's been cut from a hunk of digital plastic. The result is a tricky-to-evaluate 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer that remains true to its source but suffers for its devotion. Normally, I wouldn't dream of advocating changes to a filmmaker's vision, but -- brace for debate -- some rudimentary color and contrast tweaks would have improved matters. That said, there are pinpoints of light at the end of the cavern. Sun-bathed colors are warm and striking, primaries are fairly strong, overall detail is decidedly decent, the majority of closeups and midrange shots are satisfying, and delineation is quite revealing (too revealing actually, considering the environment). Moreover, the film's underwater scenes lend the picture some clout and look better than those that take place in Grierson's suspiciously well-lit underground gauntlet. On the technical front though, mild banding creeps in, brief bursts of noise mar a few shots and faint pulldown-like anomalies sometimes circle the cavers' head lamps. Otherwise, the encode is sound. Proceed accordingly.
Sanctum Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Universal's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track faces some of the same source-based challenges, albeit to a lesser degree. Sanctum's sound design isn't bad, not by any means, but it isn't very nuanced either. The rear speakers are teeming with crisp, clean, engaging effects, but they rarely connect with other elements in the mix, leaving an empty chasm in the middle of the soundfield around which all else swirls. Gushing water doesn't fill every inch of the room, it roars near the front, pours in from the rear and leaves the carpet in between dry. Individual echoes don't rebound from every angle, they can be traced -- quite easily -- to the exact speaker handling each one. While it isn't distracting per se, audiophiles will take notice. Otherwise, there aren't really any issues of note. Dialogue is intelligible and neatly prioritized in the soundscape, LFE output infuses the film with welcome weight and intensity, and David Hirschfelder's score mimics its surroundings and surges to the forefront whenever called upon. Storms rage, waters churn, chunks of earth smash into the ground and screams pierce the air. Yes, it's all rather loud and a little turbulent. Big, dumb and fun, really. But it's also assertive, eager to please and, frankly, suits the tone of the film just fine.
Sanctum Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The 2D Blu-ray release of Sanctum serves up a number of strong special features, among them a commentary, a lengthy production documentary (in high definition, no less), a batch of deleted scenes and a 1989 Australian documentary that examines the real divers and events that inspired the film. The package isn't terribly special, but it does offer far more than I expected.
Sanctum Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Sanctum isn't everything it could be, and doesn't do James Cameron's 3D techniques justice. It's a passable thriller with a passable cast and a barely passable script, nothing more. Universal's Blu-ray release has a few issues all its own, but most of them trace back to the film itself. At least its DTS-HD Master Audio track and ample special features take away some of the sting. All in all, Sanctum is worth renting, but if I were you, I'd be careful before wandering too much deeper into my wallet.
Sanctum: Other Editions
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Sanctum Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Exclusive Giveaway: Sanctum - May 28, 2011
Blu-ray.com and Universal Studios Home Entertainment are offering ten lucky Blu-ray.com members the opportunity to win a copy of director Alister Grierson and producer James Cameron's Sanctum, starring Rhys Wakefield, Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson ...
• Sanctum Blu-ray Announced - March 30, 2011
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced Sanctum for Blu-ray release on June 7, in 2D Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray versions. This action adventure film, executive produced by James Cameron and conceived and shot in 3D, follows a team of cave divers on ...
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