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Critical Mass: 'Sanctum'

February 4, 2011 |  5:15 pm


James Cameron may have topped George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in directing the two highest-grossing films of all time, but when it comes to the films he chooses to affix his name on as producer, it appears Cameron may have more in common with Lucas' spotty track record than Spielberg's. "Sanctum," which is being sold heavily on Cameron's name and the use of his eye-popping 3-D technology, is receiving the kind of reviews that would cause less self-assured filmmakers to go hide at the bottom of a very deep underwater cave and not come out until "Avatar 2."

Michael Phillips of the Tribune newspapers thinks a better title would have been "Sanctimonium," for the film's terrible script filled with cliches, "whether the context is hubris ('This cave's not gonna beat me!') or portents of doom ('This cave'll kill you in a heartbeat!') or expositional duhs ('The cave is flooding!') or, after the latest round of hypothermia or petty infighting, some hard-won advice to Those Who Will Go On To Tell The Story ('Trust the cave and follow the river')."

Many reviewers, it seems, had a favorite awful line of dialogue from "Sanctum." The Toronto Globe and Mail's Rick Groen mentions "Panic is the vulture that sits on your shoulder," spoken by one of the lucky characters who don't bother to dive down into the cave. However, he does give full credit to the film's 3-D images, which most critics acknowledge enjoying -- as long as the characters remain silent. "Director Alister Grierson starts by offering a minor reward for putting on those hefty plastic glasses," Groen writes. "He takes us on a swooping helicopter ride over the jungles of Papua New Guinea, then hovers for an aerial view of Esa’ala, better known in these frames as 'the mother of all caves.' "

Washington Post reviewer Mark Jenkins nails what's sure to be "Sanctum's" catchphrase: "One supporting player rarely says anything but 'let's do it.' "

Cameron and director Grierson will be relieved to note that not every reviewer hated "Sanctum." Adam Markovitz gave the film a B in Entertainment Weekly, and while acknowledging the film's shallow characters, gives it full credit for doing one thing well. He writes, "As we go deeper into the cave, walls squeezing, water rising, the movie has a narrative pull as sure as gravity."

The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern manages to pick out his own awful line of dialogue: "Every fiber of her being was driven to explore." But somehow he finds himself falling captive to the film's big 3-D images. He writes, " 'Sanctum' is far from a good movie, just as 3-D is far from the movie industry's savior. But it certainly looks good, and watching it through those plastic glasses reopens your eyes to the promise of the third dimension."

Roger Ebert, perhaps critic-dom's biggest 3-D hater, loathes the film (no surprise), but his one-and-a-half-star review makes the film sound like one that should live on and on in bad-movie academe. He writes, " 'Sanctum' should be studied in film classes as an example of inadequate film continuity. At no point are we oriented on our location in the cave as a whole, or have a clear idea of what the current cave space looks like." And later he notes, "The movie is a case study in how not to use 3-D."

-- Patrick Kevin Day

Photo: Ioan Gruffudd plays a hapless cave diver in "Sanctum." Credit: Rogue Pictures

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