If you’ve never been scuba diving, be advised that it is a very cool and rewarding, but also a deeply strange experience. Physically, it could not be easier. You are floating in (usually warm) water, breathing comfortably through your mouth. Psychologically, it’s a different story. You are deep underwater, and your life more or less depends on a fragile-looking mechanical apparatus snaking from your face to a tank of compressed air strapped to your back. Your breath is loud and it’s all you can hear. Until you get used to the sensation, you feel the urge to hyperventilate. Diving is actually very safe, but it doesn’t feel that way, at least at first. It feels kind of like being in a prison cell that’s about to flood.
I’m talking here about normal recreational diving, in open water, with a generally accepted loose limit of 100 feet of depth. The James Cameron-produced action film Sanctum is about cave divers, who deal with these feelings of danger and claustrophobia multiplied by a thousand. Instead of frolicking with manta rays in 80-degree Oahu waters, they plunge deep underground in pitch blackness and frigid cold, squeezing through holes and tunnels that could trap them or collapse on them at any moment. I can sort of imagine — but really, I can’t even imagine.
Sanctum tells the story of a group fo these daredevil explorers, including a seasoned veteran (Richard Roxburgh), his rebellious son (Rhys Wakefield), a billionaire playboy (Ioan Gruffud), and his dilettante girlfriend (Alice Parkinson), who have to find another way out or die after an unexpected flood blocks their exit. The film is no great shakes dramatically — it’s hokey and trite, with a painfully predictable father-son dynamic and an absurd last act. This is inarguable. At times, the screenplay is a weight threatening to sink the movie to the murky depths of C-grade melodrama.
Thankfully, the film knows where its strengths lie, and it’s not in characterization or dialogue. Undergirding the cheesy dramatics here is an intense, fiercely technical adventure movie, one obsessed with the unpleasant realities of being trapped in a waterlogged cave. At its best, Sanctum is worthy of James Cameron’s own directorial work — it’s unabashed popcorn entertainment imbued with fascination, impeccable craft, and a rigorous grounding in detail.
There’s a scene roughly 20 minutes into the film where a dive gone awry forces two characters to attempt to buddy-breathe using a full facemask, passing it to each other at frequent intervals to stay alive. It’s long, intense, and totally immersed in the technical and psychological reality of the situation: the equipment was not designed for this, the divers know it, and panic and instinct battle training and rational thought. It is an early candidate for scene of the year.
The rest of the film never quite lives up to the intensity of that sequence, but more often than not it comes close. The action scenes require you to do a little work to discern where the various characters are positioned in relation to each other at any given time, but they are spatially coherent, and exceptionally engaging on the basic level at which a movie like this is supposed to work. The characters’ motivations are clear, the cave is a formidable adversary, and Sanctum gave me exactly what I wanted from it.
Parts of the last half hour were, not unjustifiably, met with derisive laughter. Yes, the script, co-written by an adventurer who reportedly survived a similar real-life debacle, ranges from workmanlike to awful. But when everyone shuts up, the movie hums along beautifully. I’m not really rationalizing here. Sanctum‘s merits as an uncomplicated, straight-ahead action film make everything else either irrelevant or ignorable.