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Sanctum (2011)

Universal Pictures

The problem with the new disaster movie “Sanctum” is not that it features one-dimensional characters and poor acting. Those are genre standards, essential stock elements without which one would have to question the very nature of the enterprise.

No, the problem with “Sanctum” is that the characters are so one-dimensional, the acting is so bad and the dialogue is so composed of ham-fisted one-liners spoken VERY, VERY LOUDLY that the flick transcends the usual allowance for such things.

Pointlessly rendered in 3-D, Alister Grierson’s film (executive produced by James Cameron, as its ads never let you forget) follows a team of unmemorable explorers attempting to chart a massive, never-before-seen cave system in Papua New Guinea. Complications pour forth when a monsoon floods the system, rendering the only known way out impassible.

On the search for an exit, perpetually angry guide Frank (Richard Roxburgh) leads the survivors through tight spaces and deep pools of water while facing other precarious threats — none more insidious than that posed by reams of whiny, walking human-form clichés.

“Have you no decency, sir,” bleats moneyman Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) as the focused, preternaturally cool Frank repeatedly shrugs off the deaths of various ensemble members. Verbal confrontations such as this abound, and are what pass for human drama in the "Sanctum" universe. Typically, the interpersonal conflicts are centered on variations of the same scenario, as Frank is attacked time and again for his levelheadedness and devotion to the group’s overall safety.

Filled with glum action, rendered all the more depressingly dim by the 3-D apparatus, it’s all — to quote two audience members seated in my row, after the lights came up — quite exhausting. It is so, however, in the wrong way, hewing closer to the traditions of sub-sub-par Z-grade cinema than the sort of awe-inspiring look at underground wrath that might have emerged from a less blatantly commercialized, hack project.

The film’s also not quite amusing enough to work on an ironic level, though the uniformly terrible cast seems bent on taking “Sanctum” there, what with all the shouting. It’s hard to get too worked up about acting when the majority of the picture consists of swimming and climbing, but whenever words are expelled, things get toxic and fast.

In the end, “Sanctum” unfolds in that uncomfortably mediocre place wherein you keep watching, mildly engaged, as idiocy engulfs all. From the questionable decisions made by the characters to the leaden pacing, tortured dialogue, murky visuals and showy, wooden acting, “Sanctum” comes up woefully short. It’s an adventure movie without the adventure, a picture set in a subterranean wonderland that makes you long for sunlight, stat.


Opened on Feb. 4 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Alister Grierson; written by John Garvin and Andrew Wight; director of photography, Jules O’Loughlin; edited by Mark Warner; music by David Hirschfelder; production design by Nicholas McCallum; produced by Mr. Wight; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Richard Roxburgh (Frank), Rhys Wakefield (Josh), Alice Parkinson (Victoria), Dan Wyllie (Crazy George), Ioan Gruffudd (Carl) and John Garvin (Jim).


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