Producer James Cameron's reputation for examining the deep, dark fissures in both man and nature takes a serious hit with Sanctum, a messy, atrociously written and unevenly acted descent into a subterranean adventure, supposedly based on true events. I doubt very much that a crazy American billionaire with panicky murder in his eyes figured into those events, but as it turns out, Welsh-born actor Ioan Gruffudd, as the excitable Yank in question, is the most entertaining thing in Sanctum.
Cameron, one of six producers attached to the film, apparently recognized the similarities between Sanctum's script (penned by Andrew Wight, Cameron's producer on Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep) and his own deep-diving melodrama The Abyss. But Sanctum, which follows spelunker Frank (Richard Roxburgh, fittingly flinty), his estranged rock-climbing offspring Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and a handful of other unfortunates as they rappel down into a huge cave in remote Papua New Guinea and then become trapped by storm runoff, is no Abyss. People who have complained about the clunky exposition and mawkish emotional dialogue in Cameron's films will discover his dramatic talents to be on par with the Bard in comparison to the shouty, overemoted hokum on display here.
Not everything is awful, though. Cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin acquits himself more than admirably. Much of Sanctum was filmed underwater without benefit of CGI, which is still a difficult, dangerous and time-consuming proposition 22 years after Cameron revolutionized water-soaked drama with The Abyss, and O'Loughlin makes the most of the claustrophobic caving sequnces. There's also Roxburgh's gritty turn as a team leader who must make life-and-death decisions at every freakishly hairpin turn.
Unfortunately, what might have been a perfectly acceptable 2-D movie was upgraded to unnecessary 3-D, which leaves the images looking dark when the action is underwater and curiously washed-out when it's not. Sanctum serves as little more than a reminder that, yeah, Cameron's own scripts might not be the stuff of legend, but his overall filmmaking abilities surely are.