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A film that’s about as lost in a deep, dark and unexplored cave as its characters are.

Blu-ray Review: Sanctum

In Albert Brooks’ mostly-overlooked 1999 comedy, The Muse, Hollywood mogul James Cameron shows up onscreen for a brief moment to inquire with Sharon Stone’s titular individual of inspiration to ask her opinion about a sequel to his then-recent hit, Titanic (1997). Stone’s character then proceeds to guide Cameron out of the water — quite literally — by telling him to not make another aquatic-based adventure anytime soon. Of course, he didn’t listen. The same director that had previously manufactured The Abyss went on to several educational/documentary-type features centered on the depths of our great planet’s oceans.

To say nothing of Jimmy’s personal ATM machine, Avatar: that god-awful flick was utterly loaded with imagery that closely resembled to that which is normally only seen in the deep. But let’s not focus on that film any more than we have to, shall we? Now, in case you’re wondering what Cameron’s obsession with water is, it’s because he’s a big fan of diving. So is his pal and frequent collaborator, Australian underwater explorer/documentarian Andrew Wight, who did what so many of us all aspire to: turn a harrowing, real-life (but near-death) experience into a motion picture. Of course, such a dream helps when you have a buddy in the film industry.

Sanctum — the low-budget indie flick based on Wight’s extended jaunt with Death — was co-produced by James Cameron. The story, written by first-time drama screenwriters Wight and John Garvin, depicts a group of spelunkers/divers (pros and non-pros alike) whose expedition into the still-not-completely-chartered Esa’ala Cave in New Guinea goes horribly awry when a sudden storm cuts off their exit. Now stranded within the underground caverns, the survivors strive to find a way out — knowing full well that they might not make it.

Award-winning Australian actor Richard Roxburgh takes the lead here as the experienced pro who tries to lead his fellow humans to safety, and young Aussie hunk Rhys Wakefield portrays his somewhat estranged son. Welshman Ioan Gruffudd (still trying to save his soul after those Fantastic Four films) plays a rich American, who goes from being an all-around swell guy at the beginning to the movie to a complete and total bastard by the end as he comes face to face with Fate. Sigourney Weaver wannabe Alice Parkinson plays Gruffudd’s girlfriend; delivering one of the worst performances in this mostly-Aussie-made drama.

Naturally, as is usual with the film industry, Wight’s actual story has been highly fictionalized into something that strives for maximum emotional impact, beginning with the tried-but-true “Inspired by True Events” placard at the beginning of the film, which sets out to send that “Wow, this really happened!” vibe up your spine. While some of Sanctum’s scenes are pretty emotional, the real story was nowhere near as emotional or self-sacrificing in nature. The movie then proceeds to go down the typical Survival Film Checklist.

People die one by one? Check. Selfishness begins to overrule good ol’ common sense? Got it. Father and son finally get a chance to bond, albeit in the worst of circumstances? Yup. Standard powerful music score with lots of female chorals? Oh, yeah. Pretty paint-by-numbers drama stuff here, really. Sanctum starts out pretty poorly — with a memorable amount of weak performances and “Oh no, they didn’t” dialogue — before finally kicking in with its go-for-the-throat “survive or die” technique. Sacrifices are made by all in by the time we reach the end of the movie, and there’s a memorably-disturbing scene or two to be found here.

In the end, though, Sanctum relies mostly on a characteristic story, a conventional music score, acting that ranges from really bad to halfway outrageous, and a lot of water. In 3D. Or, in other words: it’s a James Cameron film. And to think he didn’t actually write or direct it!

Sanctum arrives on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment in a rather lackluster 1080p/AVC transfer; one that is not as crisp as you’d expect it to be. Colors in this 1.85:1-framed feature often look a bit dull — as do the black levels — and signs of digital noise reduction is evident. While you’d expect a movie that mostly takes place in a dark cave to look, well…dark, this is a bit excessive. The scenes that occur on the surface of the planet fare much better, however (fortunately). A separate Blu-ray 3D release is also available.

The disc’s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is an improvement over the video presentation, though still flawed. Rear speaker elements are aplenty, but, more often than naught, don’t blend in well with their front speaker effects and tracks. Overall, though, it’s not bad. A Spanish 5.1 DTS mix is also included, as is an English DVS (Descriptive Video Service) track — although I can’t say I know a whole lot of blind people that benefit from owning a Blu-ray player and an HDTV. Optional English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles are available.

Bonus materials take light in the form of an audio commentary with director Alister Grierson, co-writer/producer Andrew Wight and Rhys Wakefield; a three-part HD featurette about the making-of the movie (“Sanctum: The Real Story”); Nullarbor Dreaming, a retro-documentary (in Standard-Def) about the actual incident the movie’s vastly-different is based upon; and a handful of deleted scenes in High-Def. The usual amount of interactive Blu-ray features that Universal tacks on (My Scenes, BD-Live, etc.) are included as well.

In short, Sanctum is about as lost in a deep, dark and unexplored cave as its characters are. Still, though, it has a plus side: not only are there are some nice visuals here (courtesy of several beautiful locations from both Australia and Mexico), but one of the characters actually uses the metaphor “tighter than a nun’s nasty,” at one point.

Sure, that alone could escalate it to the classic tier, but there are better survival flicks out there.

About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the alter-ego of a feller who loves an eclectic variety of classic (and sometimes not-so-classic) film and television. He currently lives in Northern California with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.

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