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Sanctum Review: Well, It's No Sarlacc

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | February 5, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | February 5, 2011 |

For a movie that in pre-release looked like nothing more than an atrociously boring James Cameron vanity flick, Sanctum isn’t actually all that bad. I went into the movie fully prepared to hate it. Correction: I went into it already hating it. From the trailers you basically get five things:

  • there’s a cave
  • 3D
  • James Cameron
  • based on true events
  • did we mention the cave?

This was my initial reaction to each of these:

  • What kind of monsters are in the cave?
  • The 2D version is playing an hour before the 3D version, so you can keep the funky glasses and I can keep my other $5.
  • When James Cameron strays from sci-fi, it wounds me.
  • All films that feel the need to tell us they are based on true events are terrible.
  • What do you mean there aren’t monsters in the cave?

The film lives up to the abject disappointment for the first half hour or so. I’m relatively certain that every single word of dialogue spoken in that time was a cliche. I believe that this period was designed to introduce us to the characters and make us sympathize for how super duper cool they were. But by the time they finished with their your father is the greatest explorer of our time, and I met her on my Everest expedition, and machines can’t feel the cave, I’m the king of the world circle jerk, I hated each and every one of them. Seriously, I wanted that promised cave flooding from the trailer just to eradicate all of these overly serious pompous twats.

And then in rapid succession, there’s a horrible accident, the team is trapped, and the cave starts flooding Noah style. As the esteemed Mr. Smith is wont to say, shit gets real. Something strange started to happen at this point in the film, the atrocious first half hour started to fade and actual dramatic tension began to take hold.

From this point on the film more or less worked for two reasons. First, it makes sure to maintain a claustrophobic hopelessness from then on. Every single resource, asset, and idea they have is systematically lost. For every three steps forward, two are taken back, someone else dies, and another piece of equipment gets lost. There is no contact with the outside world, no cut aways to base camp with some random actor saying things like “by god, not one man in a million could make it through there alive” or some such. After an opening half an hour of pissing us off by doing telling and no showing, the rest of the movie switches gears exclusively into showing, highlighting harrowing set piece after harrowing set piece.

Second, the actors actually hold up their end once their characters are forced into survival mode, especially Richard Roxburgh. He nails both the nearly sociopathic detatchment necessary to survive, and a constant quiet awe for his surroundings.

It’s certainly not a perfect film. The first half hour is downright painful to watch and it relies a bit too much on certain predictable characters being morons or traitors in the rest of the film, but it was still entertaining enough. Enough to pay $15 for 3D? Not even remotely. Enough to pay regular 2D price? Well … maybe if you get a matinee or senior discount. It’s the sort of film that’s perfect for watching at midnight on TNT when you can’t sleep, and you definitely won’t be missing anything when you inevitably catch it while flipping and it’s already half an hour in.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.