Why anyone would want to go cave diving is beyond me. It’s dangerous, you’re surrounded on all sides, there’s no natural light to be found and, as one character so astutely observes early in the new cave diving thriller Sanctum, nobody above ground cares about what you’re doing. Whatever their goal, whether for fun or for reason (like mapping out its structure), it seems a bit crazy. But that’s precisely why the subject is so ripe for the picking. It’s a setting where characters truly have no escape and cell phones have a reason to not have a signal. The people that venture into those caves are lost to the outside, but, unfortunately, Sanctum doesn’t fully capitalize on this intriguing idea.
Inspired by a true event, but certainly more dramatic than what actually happened, Sanctum follows a cave diving team that is forced to find a way out after a freak storm above ground closes off their exit to the cave system. Any extraneous plot details are unnecessary. Why they’re there and whatever issues they’ve brought along with them are poorly defined and do nothing in the way of heightening the drama.
All of that is instead done by the actual cave where one wrong move or a sudden loss of calmness can lead to death. The design of the cave system is second to none and it looms over the characters in every shot. It’s almost like a character itself; the villain in a horror movie. Adding to the authenticity is a cast of relative no names (the sole exception being Ioan Gruffudd who played Mr. Fantastic in the Fantastic Four films), which allows viewers to place themselves in the film rather than focus on a massive star adding more money to his bank account.
So when things go wrong—and they do—it gets intense. You’ll sympathize for the characters, despite hit and miss performances, and shudder and cringe at every morbid turn. Unfortunately, you’ll cringe at other, less opportune times as well, like the first 20 minutes or so where forced humor, cheesy small talk, eye rolling film references and foreshadowing dialogue (“What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?”) take over the screenplay.
As Sanctum rolls along, it suffers from redundancy. It hits a cyclical pattern that makes sense given the nature of the story, but nevertheless doesn’t make for a very interesting movie. Being trapped in a cave only produces a limited amount of drama and excitement and, perhaps aware of this, the filmmakers make an attempt to switch things up, but artificiality takes over. Characters make incredibly stupid decisions which then lead to even worse decisions and an eventual death.
With James Cameron credited as executive producer, it comes as no surprise that Sanctum is in 3D and uses the technology Cameron created for Avatar. However, despite working in Avatar (though that may be because that film came prior to the influx of 3D movies and filmgoers weren’t really sure what to look for yet), it doesn’t here. Aside from the endless double vision and headaches brought on from trying to focus on constantly shifting depths, the glasses make the inherently dark cave system look even darker, which presents a visual problem that is sometimes hard to overcome.
At times, Sanctum feels so eerily similar to films like The Descent and The Abyss that you half expect some creature to appear. But despite sharing similar traits, it doesn’t remain fresh like they do. Those films had mysteries surrounding them and things to discover. This doesn’t. It’s a movie with an interesting idea, but nowhere to go with it.
Sanctum receives 2.5/5