Sanctum (2011)


It is with a mixture of relief and bewilderment that I learn that there was no actual loss of life in the real-life spelunking misadventure on which Sanctum is based.

Directed by Alister Grierson. Richard Roxburgh, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson, Rhys Wakefield. Universal.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

A number of violent, sometimes gruesome deaths including two instances of euthanasia and an act somewhat proximate to suicide; recurring obscene and profane language; a woman stripping to her underwear and huddling with a man under a thermal blanket to ward off hypothermia.

Relief, not only because everyone was saved, but because it means however rotten the fictionalized movie account might be, at least it doesn’t defame the dead. And bewilderment, because I have a hard time imagining what would possess someone fortunate enough to have lived through the basic premise of the film without loss of life to extrapolate a tale of such perversity and inhumanity.

Andrew Wight, who was leading an expedition into an underwater cave system in western Australia in 1988 when a cyclone struck, trapping 15 people underground, has story and screenwriting credits for Sanctum. In real life, everyone was rescued within six hours. The following year Wight produced an award-winning documentary about the adventure. For the last ten years he has produced IMAX and TV specials for James Cameron, whose executive producer credit for Sanctum is responsible for much of the attention this 3-D Australian production has gotten.

The shocking thing about Sanctum’s fictional survival story, relocated to Papua New Guinea, is not that it kills off one expedition member after another, often quite brutally. The shocking thing is how callously it treats their lives. More than one team member is euthanized by his fellows, submerged and drowned after sustaining catastrophic injuries.

That’s not counting the team member who euthanizes himself after succumbing to the bends, deliberately falling behind and then hiding himself in a crevice so that he won’t be a burden to his concerned teammates. Then there’s the one who dies after her air hose breaks, who panics when her partner tries to share his air with her, forcing him to shove her off to drown. Were any of these characters in any way based on the real people involved? If you were one of the 15 people trapped in that expedition, do you think you might feel a little queasy watching this film, knowing that all this was conceived by the man who led that team?

If there were sympathetic characters grappling with the morality of their choices, Sanctum might have achieved some measure of thoughtfulness. Not only are they not sympathetic, they’re barely characters. “I wouldn’t want to share an elevator with any of them, let alone be trapped with them in a cave” was the comment from my guest after the screening, the first of a number of lines about the film I wish I had thought of first. You will wait in vain through the whole movie for a line with a fraction of that wit and intelligence.

Leading the expedition is a character I’ll call Hardass Robo-Dad (Richard Roxburgh, Van Helsing). As Robo-Dad’s awed colleagues keep explaining to his aggrieved son (Rhys Wakefield), whom I’ll call Aggrieved Son, Robo-Dad is the world’s foremost spelunker, a subterranean explorer comparable to Columbus and Neil Armstrong. Here is some free advice: You may think someone is a great guy, but if his kids think otherwise, don’t try to tell them, unless you are one of the kids yourself. They know what it was like to be raised by him, and you don’t..

Aggrieved Son has a chip on his shoulder about Robo-Dad dragging him all his life from cave to cave without ever asking if he liked caves. Robo-Dad is not real understanding about Aggrieved’s issues. Robo-Dad is like the former drill sergeant turned therapist in the GEICO commercial: “That’s interesting. You know what makes me sad? You do! Maybe we should chug on over to mamby-pamby land where maybe we can find some self-confidence for you, ya jack-wagon!”

Here is Hardass’s touching speech immediately after a particularly horrifying death: “She made her own choices. She came down here without experience. She [made other mistakes]. That’s three mistakes in a place where you can hardly make one.” He says this right in front of the dead woman’s fiancé, whose shaken response—“Have you no decency?”—elicited laughter from the screening audience. My thought was: I thought it was a foregone conclusion 45 minutes ago that Hardass had no decency. How long have you known him?

Character-wise, that’s about it, I guess. There are a number of other warm bodies on the screen, some assigned roles and/or alleged to have personality traits. Maybe I should count Arrogant Thrill-seeking American Millionaire Sponsor (Ioan Gruffudd, Fantastic Four), who for reasons I can’t reconstruct in my mind begins the movie irritated at Hardass for not having found the underground outlet leading to the ocean yet, as a character. Hm. Nah. (Hardass’s response reminds me of Belloq in Raiders: “I promised nossing! Spelunking is not an exact science!”)

At some point Hardass takes a stabNo pun intended, although you’d have to see the film to get this aside. It’s not worth it. at explaining to Aggrieved Son why he was such a lame father and husband. It comes out something like this: “I could never be what you needed, or what she needed. Down here, I can make sense of the world. Up there ... CDs and cars and mortgages ... I was lost. This is my church.” So add, what, abandonment and/or divorce to euthanasia and suicide on the movie’s Culture of Death Rationalization Checklist. And really bad dialogue.

This might sound like a line from a movie review on The Onion, but: I would have thought “executive produced by James Cameron” meant something. For all that might be said, and truly said, about Cameron’s limitations as a filmmaker, and the morally problematic milieux of most of his films, the man is focused like a laser beam on entertaining his target audience, which is a big chunk of everybody. Sanctum brutalizes the audience and gives almost nothing in return. I am so not surprised to read in Roger Ebert’s review, “Here is a movie that can only harm the reputations of Cameron and 3-D itself.”

I went to see Sanctum in part because I love caves, and the film does deliver some pretty scenery. Occasionally the 3D is even an asset. If, over my objections, you decide to see Sanctum, ask yourself while you are watching a young woman caught by her hair until her scalp starts to peel away from her skull if it’s worth it.

Adventure, Cultures of Life and Death, Thriller