Produced by James Cameron and filmed with the same 3-D technology he used on "Avatar," the survival saga "Sanctum" proves that money alone does not a good movie make. Despite the millions clearly poured into it, the film feels cheap and amateurish. See it on IMAX if you wish, but the flaws will only look bigger.
A throwback of sorts to the disaster films of the 1970s, "Sanctum" follows a group of Australian divers exploring an underwater cave in Papua New Guinea. When a storm blocks the only known exit, the team must search for a new passage to the surface. Along the way, nerves will snap like guylines and tough choices will be made.
The film feels well-researched, at least. Cameron is an avid diver, as is the film's co-producer and co-screenwriter, Andrew Wight, who based the story on a real-life experience. Whenever the dialogue turns to topics like decompression and rebreathers, it sounds reasonably convincing.
That can't be said for the one-dimensional characters or the mostly wooden actors who portray them. The main crew comprises the hard-nosed team leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh); his sensitive son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield); the overly cocky Carl (Ioan Gruffudd); and his girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson). Aside from the veteran Roxburgh, no one is acting so much as reciting a script. At any rate, there's little anyone could do with lines like, "This cave's not gonna beat me."
Despite the messy directing by Alister Grierson, the action sequences generate just enough excitement to keep you awake. Otherwise, sitting through "Sanctum" feels like its own test of endurance.
Back story: Aussie director has an avatar in Cameron
If you think your boss is intimidating, imagine how Alister Grierson feels. The Australian filmmaker, who made his new movie, "Sanctum," under the guiding hand of "Avatar" creator James Cameron, had to present a finished cut to the director in Cameron's Malibu home theater.
"Every time he'd twitch, I wondered, 'Oh, no, what did I do wrong?' " recalled Grierson, 41, who had previously directed only one other movie, a small Australian war picture. "It was like sitting with God at the pearly gates watching your entire life."
"Sanctum" is an unusual project for Cameron, who rarely plays patron on other filmmakers' work and has long talked about making a smaller feature but somehow keeps getting pulled back to "Titanic"-size films. In fact, while the trailer flashes his name early and often, Cameron plays down his involvement.
"I can't stop the studio marketing people from picking the path that they think is going to make the most money for the movie, but I would hope people would look past that," he said. "It's Andrew and Alister's film." He does joke that he told the pair: "You guys are pretty much on your own. I've gotta go finish 'Avatar.' If you do well, I'll show up and take credit."