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James Cameron has been so integral to the marketing of Sanctum that it's easy to know he's involved before even knowing the film's plot. But please, do not be fooled--Sanctum is to a Cameron film as Epic Movie is to Airplane!, a cruel and soulless copy that apes but fundamentally misunderstands everything Cameron does right. Cribbing plot points and characters from Cameron's work, The Abyss in particular, Sanctum aims for a kind of stern-jawed, gobsmacking action adventure, but gets hopelessly tangled in its own silliness and ineptitude instead.
Though based on a true story of a daring escape from a collapsed cave, Sanctum seems preposterous from the very beginning, as a typical early America (Ioan Gruffudd, channeling Paul Reiser in Aliens) crows "I have control!" while entering the heart of Papua New Guinea's wilderness, and reminds other characters, "Life's not a dress rehearsal." He's the most obnoxious and buffoonish of the characters, but the rest aren't that much better, including the angsty teen hero (Rhys Wakefield) and his gruff father (Richard Roxburgh), whom we are told half a dozen times is one of the world's great cave explorers, and half a dozen more that he's no good at expressing emotions toward his son. When a storm kicks up above ground and blocks them in, the research team-- which also includes the American's hot girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) and a goofball explorer literally credited as Crazy George (Dan Wyllie)-- have no choice but to dig deeper into the cave in hopes of escaping through uncharted routes.
From there the film isn't so much an adventure saga, ramping up the emotional stakes and changing the consequences as the story moves on, but a haunted house series of escapes. They have to wiggle through the tight passage. They have to swing across churning water to a safe rock across. They have to find light. They have to avoid the bends. There's a ton of diving lingo thrown in by writers John Garvin and Andrew Wight to no great effect-- apparently they missed the memo from Cameron that you can make up an element, literally call it unobtanium, and make it the entire focal point of a movie. And director Alister Grierson completely lacks Cameron's gift for establishing spacial relationships, making it so even the narrow squeezes through underwater cave walls are murky and low-stakes. It's one thing not to care about these characters, but another to have suffered so much clunky exposition and still not understand what they're going through.
The 3D, supervised by Cameron himself and using the best technology, is just fine, though it's a little weird to expand the dimensions of a film that's supposed to make us feel claustrophobic. But despite all the attention paid to stalagmites and stalactites and the occasionally beautiful pattern of water reflected by a diver's headlamp, the visuals are the last thing you'll notice when dealing with howler lines like "You killed her, you bastard!" and, memorably, "Have you no decency?" Say what you will about Cameron's lack of felicitous language, but he never would stoop that low-- and really, if it didn't flatter his lifelong love of diving and newfound 3D obsession, he probably never would have gone near Sanctum to begin with. You're best off not repeating his mistake.