Probably like you, I'm sick of hearing the endless debate about whether 3-D is the future of cinema. To me, it's not an either/or sort of question: If the technology is used well, then I'm fine with it. If it's used as a gimmick after a film has been already shot to wring a couple extra bucks out of my pocket, well, then I have a problem. "Sanctum" is definitely a case where the 3-D really helps enhance the experience. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much to enhance the script.
Directed by Alister Grierson (no relation), "Sanctum" is a good old-fashioned adventure movie (except not that good) where you've got a bunch of anonymous actors doing battle with Mother Nature. Specifically, it's about Frank (Richard Roxburgh), a veteran cave diver who must guide a group (including his estranged son, played by Rhys Wakefield) through a massive cave that's fast filling up with water thanks to a tropical storm above them. Drowning, darkness, tight crevices, dissension in the ranks -- there's (mostly) a refreshing lack of bad guys or external factors throwing obstacles in the path of the characters. Instead, it's just these folks trying to stay alive.
On one level, the simplicity of John Garvin and Andrew Wight's script gives "Sanctum" an almost primal drive: The film has a nicely unfussy brutality in the way it dispenses with characters along the way. And the 3-D, shot using the same cameras executive producer James Cameron wielded on "Avatar," is excellent, giving the viewer an idea of just how cut off the characters are from the rest of the world. (This is especially important during the underwater sequences in which the sense of drowning envelopes you at every moment.)
But even a down-and-dirty adventure movie needs some shred of character empathy to make you invested. And that's what "Sanctum" can't provide: I can forgive the stray clunky line of dialogue or purplish monologue, but when they come raining down on you the way they do here, it becomes oppressive. The lack of sophistication in the storytelling is such that when a character early on talks about a seemingly innocuous memento he's received from another character, you can rest assured that same memento will be crucial in the movie's final scenes.
What's more annoying about that is that when the director sticks to the bare-bones action, "Sanctum" can be a pretty gripping, no-holds-barred survival movie. When it's nearly silent, the movie returns us to an almost prehistoric period in which the characters are stripped of all they know of the civilized world, forced to keep moving forward because stopping means death. But I tended to forget all about that when anybody in the movie started talking again.
Watch an exclusive clip from "Sanctum":