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Movie Review

Sanctum

Trapped in 3-D: Two-dimensional characters populate survival saga ‘Sanctum’

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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Is a movie about people trapped in a cave more claustrophobic in 3-D or less? Arguably more: You should feel the walls closing in on you and, in the best scenes in “Sanctum,’’ you do. A pity those scenes are far and few between. This adventure-survival saga, “presented by’’ executive producer James Cameron as a way to keep his 3-D equipment from gathering dust between “Avatar’’ installments, is essentially a muscular Australian B-movie down to the thin characters and boilerplate dialogue. And like most B-movies, it’s better at showing than telling.

The location is the Esa’ala cave complex in Papua, New Guinea, one of the last unexplored places on earth, we’re told. (So unexplored that the movie was shot on sets and exteriors in Queensland.) Grizzled explorer Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is leading a team through the caverns, most of them underwater, in hopes of finding an exit through to the sea. When the monsoon season comes early and a boulder plugs their means of exit, Frank and four others have to head down in the hopes of ultimately heading up.

Those others include Frank’s teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), a talented cave diver who has abandonment issues with dad; Frank’s callow partner Carl (Ioan Gruffudd, bringing the film’s only star wattage); Carl’s hardy girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson in the designated babe role); and jack-of-all-trades George (Dan Wylie), still suffering from the aftereffects of the bends during an earlier dive. After the initial set-up and crisis, “Sanctum’’ settles in for an extended game of Five Little Spelunkers.

Characters are dispatched by drowning, impalement by stalagmite (or is that stalactite?), and, in one grisly sequence, after hanging by an ear above a roiling flood. About all that’s missing here are mutant cave-dwelling cannibals à la the horror movie “Descent’’ — but one of the characters makes up for that by going psycho in the unconvincing final act.

The script by John Garvin and Andrew Wight (based on an experience of Wight’s, apparently) manages to turn real peril into dud dialogue, and Alister Grierson’s sturdy direction lacks the personality that keeps a gruel-a-thon like “127 Hours’’ moving along. What we get are three-dimensional caves and two-dimensional characters.

At times, that’s enough. A sequence where the cast has to squeeze through a narrow underwater passage has the audience holding its breath in suspense and the final scenes in which one of the heroes sucks air from bubbles trapped on the cave roof is nerve-wracking and inspiring. The 3-D technology, though, is still only good enough to give us a fake sense of depth, and some of the shots are visually jarring.

Other moments do convey a genuine sensation of space expanding past the edges of vision into inky blackness. Still, a rocky cave is a rocky cave, and “Sanctum’’ trades theriotous color palette of “Avatar’’ for a dull, oppressive brown that leaves us feeling as trapped as the characters — and to less purpose. They have to get back to the surface. We just need to get out to the lobby.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

SANCTUM Directed by: Alister Grierson

Written by: John Garvin and Andrew Wight

Starring: Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: R (language, some violence, disturbing images)

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