Friday, February 4, 2011

Film review: 'Sanctum' tech dazzles, but story is all wet

Richard Roxburgh in Sanctum.

By John Thomason

Like every good idea capitalism has leeched onto and subsequently tarnished,‭ ‬3D technology has already jumped the shark in its light-speed ascent from cult novelty to the establishment standard of big-budget moviemaking.‭

Dimensions have thus far been added‭ ‬to movies so atrocious I wouldn‭’‬t see them if they leaped off the screen,‭ ‬ran to my house and did my laundry.‭ ‬I enjoyed‭ ‬The Green Hornet despite its obligatory‭ ‬3D presentation,‭ ‬not because of it,‭ ‬and‭ ‬the addition of‭ ‬3D to the asinine Jack Black vehicle‭ ‬Gulliver‭’‬s Travels couldn‭’‬t have been more superfluous than a‭ ‬3D taping of‭ ‬Charlie Rose.

But‭ ‬watching‭ ‬Sanctum,‭ ‬which was executive-produced by James Cameron and shot with‭ ‬Avatar‭’‬s technology,‭ ‬it‭’‬s easy to remember what was so exciting about the advent of realistic‭ ‬3D in the first place.‭ ‬What galvanized a nation to abandon On Demand and Netflix for one night and actually‭ ‬see a movie in a theater a year ago‭ ‬– even if said movie was really a‭ ‬reductive,‭ ‬half-baked antiwar allegory‭ ‬dressed up with jaw-dropping cinematography‭ ‬– has the potential to do so again this year.

Beyond a few IMAX-worthy aerial shots of nature‭’‬s rich bounty,‭ ‬Sanctum is set almost entirely in the‭ ‬underwater Esa-Ala Caves in the South Pacific,‭ ‬so the settings isn‭’‬t as imaginative as‭ ‬Avatar‭’‬s.‭ ‬But the details are just as,‭ ‬well,‭ ‬detailed.‭ ‬Rather than having us simply look at multiple dimensions on a flat screen,‭ ‬director Alister Grierson does‭ ‬3D the old-fashioned way,‭ ‬by bringing elements like dripping water and beams of light off the screen and right in front of our eyes.‭ ‬I imagine that,‭ ‬like‭ ‬Avatar,‭ ‬it‭’‬s as visually immersive as the cinema can be.

But enough tech talk‭ ‬– the story is still the most important element,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Sanctum‭’‬s narrative never reaches the astonishing level of its storyboards.‭ ‬The central conflict is the rote,‭ ‬surprise-free journey of a prodigal son‭ ‬reuniting with his‭ ‬disconnected,‭ ‬emotionally absent father.‭ ‬Josh‭ (‬Rhys Wakefield‭)‬,‭ ‬an extreme adventurer,‭ ‬resents his father Frank‭’‬s‭ (‬Richard Roxburgh‭) ‬obsessive digging in remote caves.

Frank has become a leading authority on dangerous spelunking,‭ ‬to the detriment of any kind of personal life,‭ ‬and‭ ‬neither father nor son has taken the time to understand one another.‭ ‬But when a tropical storm causes both men,‭ ‬and a few other divers,‭ ‬to be trapped in the treacherous cavern,‭ ‬they must work around their grievances and escape certain death.

As Josh,‭ ‬Wakefield has a pleasing television persona‭; ‬his resume so far is scant,‭ ‬but I imagine he would make a strong replacement on‭ ‬Grey‭’‬s Anatomy or‭ ‬House should the opportunity arise.‭ ‬At any rate,‭ ‬he fares much better than the monotone performance of the gravel-voiced Roxburgh,‭ ‬whose Frank oscillates between two moods:‭ ‬broodingly incensed and broodingly taciturn.

Sanctum follows formula to the T,‭ ‬so there‭’‬s no question the two central characters will end the movie lovey-dovey.‭ ‬The open question,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s a‭ ‬pretty‭ ‬compelling one,‭ ‬is whether anyone will make it out of the cave alive.‭ ‬Sanctum is a brutal movie,‭ ‬a traditional suspense yarn sprinkled with squishy horror-movie close-ups and enough expletives to earn its R rating‭ (‬It‭’‬s refreshing to see a film that doesn‭’‬t even attempt to get‭ ‬the‭ ‬more box-office-friendly PG-13‭; ‬here,‭ ‬the characters say what anyone would when they‭’‬re in a state of near-death panic‭)‬.‭

In fact,‭ ‬the final death count,‭ ‬while not giving away specifics,‭ ‬is uniquely high for a movie that is ostensibly a feel-good Hollywood survival story.

However,‭ ‬as an emotional roller coaster worth your tears,‭ ‬Sanctum is half the movie‭ ‬127‭ ‬Hours is,‭ ‬and it tries twice as hard to move you.‭ ‬Sanctum‭ ‬confirms‭ ‬that even though James Cameron‭’‬s stamp of approval can nearly beat an artistically dead technological horse back to life,‭ ‬he can‭’‬t prevent another example of two-dimensional characters on a three-dimensional screen.

SANCTUM.‭ ‬Director:‭ ‬Alister Grierson‭; ‬Cast:‭ ‬Rhys Wakefield,‭ ‬Ioan Gruffudd,‭ ‬Richard Roxburgh,‭ ‬Alice Parkinson,‭ ‬Dan Wyllie,‭ ‬Christopher Baker‭; ‬Distributor:‭ ‬Universal‭; ‬Rating:‭ ‬R‭; ‬now playing at area theaters

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