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February 5, 2011


I may not be the most athletic or outdoorsy person in the world, but I have been caving. I have been lost under the hills of central Kentucky with a guy referred to as “Tommy Death”. I’ve met some of the principles of the only major caving expedition to attempt setting up a base camp underground. I know people who think nothing of a 48-hour cave trip broken by occasional naps just for about six hours of mapping in the middle. And these people call cave divers nuts.

Sanctum tells the story of a particularly ill-fated cave-diving expedition in the wilds of Papua New Guinea, attempting to find a connection from the underground river system out to the ocean. It’s the brainchild of James Cameron — my best guess is he liked the technical challenges of filming a caving movie — but it’s directed by the relatively fresh Alister Grierson, so it manages to avoid Cameron’s excesses.

Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is the expedition’s leader, brought on-board by its billionaire financier Carl (Ioan Gruffudd). Along for the ride are Frank’s semi-estranged son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), Carl’s mountaineer girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson), and the old caving hand George (Dan Wylie). They’re all down at the base camp, two vertical kilometers and anybody’s guess how many more horizontal below the surface, when a tropical cyclone sweeps in and starts to flood the cave. They try to make their way out, climbing up against the torrential flow, but their efforts bring a boulder crashing down to block the passage. The only way out is through, to try to push on and find the connection out to the ocean.

Now, of course there are nits to be picked. The first is the light: there’s far too much of it. Even after the expedition washes out and they’re in new, untracked areas of the cave the background is generally dim, but it’s visible. When your lights are all mounted on your head, they only shine wherever you look. If nobody’s looking at the wall, it’s pretty much black. If you’re the only person in a cavern the size of a football field, you can’t see the far side at all. It’s also notable how enormous this cave is. Except for a couple pinches and a single (still relatively spacious) crawl near the end, it’s big walking passage. And there are formations showing what seem to be pretty clear signs of heavy human traffic despite this being completely virgin cave.

No caving movie ever gets it right, though, and a lot of these problems can be chalked up to the necessities of filming. The audience probably wouldn’t like not being able to see anything with the light not following their eyes, and it’d be difficult to really communicate the sense of space — or the lack thereof. So on the whole I think they’re forgivable.

There are also a lot of really stupid things that people do, most of which seem thrown in as dramatic hooks. The movie is ultimately inspired by true events, which I’m sure happened through no real fault of the actual people involved. Caving can be dangerous, and cave diving necessarily is; bad things can happen even without doing anything stupid. But character and drama are a lot easier when you have a flashy hotdogger, or an inexperienced caver given to panic.

And so Sanctum is not really accurate as a caving movie. But it is a fairly decent thriller, all told. Overlook the places where the rough edges got sanded off, and you’ll find a fun, exciting ride.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.

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