Sanctum is the story of an underwater cave exploration team at the Esa’ala Cave in New Guinea, Australia. It’s, according to master diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), the last place on the planet unexplored. It’s about 80% explored, Frank’s team having spent weeks caving, tunneling and diving, but there’s an underwater section that presumably leads out to the ocean that remains unexplored. Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) grudgingly arrives with his frined Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) and his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), having not taken part in a task of getting extra rebreather tanks when Frank was hoping he would have. Carl says Frank is a master cave explorer, and Josh says that’s cause he’s got nothing else. Still, he arrives to the cave, but a storm the crew thought was going to blow by they miscalculated on. Massively. Water ends up flooding and rising around their base camp, and six of the crew, including Frank and Josh, end up stuck when the entrance and exit they’ve been using gets blocked off. Now they have to explore the unexplored in hopes of escaping this unknown cave before they drown.
Even if this only counts for two or three songs because of noticeable replays as the film goes along, Sanctum has one of the most beautiful soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Now I remember why I keep telling everyone movie soundtracks, lyrics or not, are my favourite. Two of the songs have a singer humming non-lyrics to us, and during one song, it’s soothing, and another time, it’s exciting, and both times, the voice is so pretty. These songs blend terrifically with the cave setting, always realistically photographed and have that surreal sense of nature’s beauty. The movie balances that strange mixture of beauty and deadliness, which in most other films would be like oil and sprinkles. There are dozens of shots that are so high up and wide. We can thank James Cameron’s cameras for that, but there’s also the ability required to use them.
Somehow, the time flies by in this movie. Even when there’s no music and the characters are either fighting, grieving or squirming it’s hard not to watch. The movie does a great job of adding to our own claustrophobia as the divers squeeze their way through passages lethal if not scooted around properly, and never once did I not believe they were far below the Earth in turmoil.
Are the actors good? For the most part, yes. As someone who never knew any of these actors (minus Ioan Gruffudd) it was a little refreshing watching a thriller with unfamiliar faces. Roxburgh gives us an interesting character in Frank, made to be unlikable while also feeling like a figure who accepts the responsibility of being hated. Yet there are times where he tries to dodge the blame for stuff. Altogether it makes for a character you have to think about how much you like or dislike. Wakefield I think was the best actor as Josh, giving us more than enough charisma to make us really hope he survives. Gruffudd and Parkinson have both been trashed as the weakest points of the cast, but Parkinson in my opinion seemed to be doing her best and Gruffudd has a few scenes where he really excels, and a few not quite. But seriously, Roxburgh and Wakefield deserve more recognition in the Hollywood field.
This is also some surprisingly heartwarming stuff, with a father-son relationship that really works. You can feel the history between Frank and Josh as Roxburgh and Wakefield share a feeling of both connection and impatience, and as things get more and more dire, they bond in a way that is genuinely tender, making you really hope they can get out and cry in relief over what they were able to accomplish when mother nature trapped them into a cavern of death.
There are a few moments when the characters really are put through visible pain, and that’s when the enjoyment dips, and there are some character deaths we either see coming a mile away or feel too easy, or has a case of one too many. There are two deaths that felt completely avoidable. There was a rebreather close by for one and there was an alternative to using a knife for another. But more often than not, director Alister Grierson sidesteps the pain of drowning a little, instead showing us the fear these people are going through of the possibility of it, and I preferred that route over the former. I was always worried growing up it would be uncomfortable to the point of not being able to watch it, and I was wrong. The last thirty minutes are brilliant, heartbreaking and do not hold back on the terror. If it weren’t for a few trite moments, this would probably be an A-. Sanctum is strong, delighting in its beauty, mystery, and relatable fear.