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Review: Explorers dive into danger in Sanctum

February 16, 2011

A group of underwater cave-exploring daredevils gets more adventure than they expected in “Sanctum,” a subterranean survival yarn that will make most people think twice about paddling off into a dark, deep, uncharted cavern filled with water.
Most people probably wouldn’t think of doing that, period. But to these globetrotting “cavers,” it’s the ultimate kick.
Problems arise, however, on an expedition inside one of the Earth’s most intimidating, least mapped cave systems. When a South Pacific cyclone floods the normally dry area of the cave they’re using as base camp, the trapped explorers are forced to find another way out.
In some ways, “Sanctum” is a throwback to an old-fashioned Hollywood staple, the “disaster” movie: Put several people in a dire situation and see who comes out alive.
“Sanctum” uses the old-standby survivor bait but doesn’t hook anything new or novel with it. There are no surprising plot twists, no didn’t-see-that-coming revelations. The story basically unfolds as one long, wet slog as the cast becomes dispatched, one at a time, in various painful, watery ways.
There’s a brief exchange about the inside of a big cave feeling, and looking, like a cathedral. One of the characters makes a comment about how “even God” can’t find them, much less rescuers, deep down in the bowels of the Earth. But it never amounts to anything---other than a pretentious title that suggests something sacred.
For anyone interested in the technicalities of diving, “Sanctum” does weave in some details about breathing equipment, the dire consequences of ascending too fast or diving unprepared, and the feeling of panic that most inexperienced divers would feel under the challenging circumstances the movie depicts.
And it does have some impressive-looking underwater photography, which looks even more spectacular in 3-D. When the divers squeeze through a particularly narrow passage, you almost feel like you’re scraping up against the rocks yourself.
The fancy camera work comes courtesy of James Cameron, the director who pioneered groundbreaking new 3-D technology for “Avatar,” and who’s also shown an affinity---if not a fetish---for putting movie characters in real pickles in, or under, the water. Remember “Titanic” and “The Abyss”?
Cameron’s not directing here, but he does serve as one of the movie’s producers. Too bad more of his hands-on blockbuster touch isn’t evident with the unknown actors, clumsily staged action sequences, cheesy dialogue and draggy pace.
“Sanctum” goes through the predictable action-adventure paces, but too often feels like James Cameron just playing around with some very expensive bathtub toys---and treading water until his “Avatar” sequel comes out next year.

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