Almost.

Almost is the word that kept running through my head while watching Sanctum. This film almost works. But director Alister Grierson is never able to break through the story problems that John Garvin and Andrew Wight’s script serves up. And while the film is mostly watchable, it’s never as engrossing as it should be.

Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is the leader of an expedition into an immense cave system in Papua New Guinea. Gruff and driven, he’s a terrific caver, but when it comes to being a father, he comes up lacking — just ask his son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield). A sullen guy in his early twenties, Josh has been dragged on his father’s expeditions since he was a kid. What would be a grand adventure to the rest of us, feels like nothing more than work to him. Frank’s expeditions are funded by Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), a Richard Branson-type mogul who loves the adrenaline high he gets from exploring the remote places of the world. This time, Carl has brought along his girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), an experienced mountain climber who knows next to nothing about caving or cave diving. It seems that an underground river runs through the cave and eventually empties into the ocean. No one has yet found the path the river takes and that is exactly what Frank and Carl are looking for.

Of course, things go bad when a massive storm that was supposed to be two days away suddenly hits (apparently no member of the team has the ability to accurately read a weather report). The cave quickly floods, blocking any exit to the surface. Trapped, Frank, Carl, Josh, Victoria, and George (Dan Wyllie), one of Frank’s assistants, make the decision to follow the river in an attempt find a way out. But the myriad dangers of cave diving face them as they make their journey with inadequate supplies.

What should have been a story of nerve-wracking suspense and the lengths to which people will go to survive instead sputters at a stop and go pace that is further hampered by the lack of interesting characters. Frank comes off as the most fully formed character, but that perception could be colored by Roxburgh’s commanding performance. Josh is merely whiney and quickly becomes annoying. Victoria exists solely to temper some of the excessive testosterone on display and to act as the audience surrogate. George is the thankless role of the Frank’s loyal assistant.

And then there’s Carl. As written, Carl is as paper thin as the rest of the characters. But he’s also slightly ridiculous in the way his behavior is dictated by his love of all things extreme. Not only is he a cave diver, he’s a helicopter pilot, and a base diver. I was willing to except all of these skills in the interest of enjoying the film, but Gruffudd overplays Carl as such an obnoxious, loudmouthed lout that it’s hard to care about him when things quickly become dangerous.

As the group make their way further into the cave and the situation becomes increasingly dangerous, the story quickly flies off the rails. Josh decides this is the perfect time to work out the issues he has with Frank. Carl melts down and turns against Frank, blaming him for their predicament. And Victoria and George stand around, waiting for the next plot point to kick in. I’m all for trying to create three dimensional characters, but once the survival aspect of the story began, it was time for Grierson to abandon the clunky attempts at building conflicts between the characters. Quite frankly, I learned more about Frank, Carl, and Josh by watching their physical abilities under stressful situations than I did through any of the leaden dialogue.

All complaints duly noted, I will say that Sanctum is sporadically exciting. Grierson certainly knows how to put together individual adventure sequences that veer from invigorating to horrifying. Aided by the great underwater cinematography by Simon Christidis, Grierson creates a constant state of claustrophobic panic during the numerous diving sequences. The problem quickly becomes that the films stops too often for arguments between mostly uninteresting people.

James Cameron serves as an executive producer on the film, and it feels as though Grierson takes several pages from his playbook. Not only is the film shot in 3D (an unnecessary touch), it almost fetishizes technology as characters spend most of the first act showing off and explaining different diving gear, computer models of the cave, and decompression chambers. While most of these things do come into play later in the film, they are never dropped into a scene like needed exposition. Often, the story and the characters are swept aside so that more care and finesse is put into showing off the equipment than the characters we are supposed to care about.

But where Cameron is often able to overcome his lack of skill when it comes to dialogue and characterization, Grierson eventually proves himself not capable of this distinction. It’s obvious that cave exploration and diving is a passion to everyone behind the film, but they may have been better off just creating a National Geographic-type documentary about the subject instead of trying to graft it on to a fitfully intriguing, but often dull and silly adventure movie.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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