Heading into the “primeval wilderness” in Esa’ala on Papua New Guinea, Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) is excited. For one thing, he’s been financing an expedition into a deep, deep cave as yet unseen by humans, “the mother of all caves,” as Carl puts it. For another, looking out on the vast green from his helicopter, he’s trying to impress his new girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson). The danger is real and daunting, he insists, as you never know when “some mud man will be using your skull for a soup bowl.”
In fact, the locals have nothing to do with the adventure in Sanctum, which is rather relentlessly focused on the whining and quarreling among white Westerners. Chief among these is Carl’s point man on the expedition, veteran caver/climber/curmudgeon Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), who is decidedly unimpressed by Carl’s desires and directives. Carl, contrarily, informs Frank’s son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), “Your dad is one of the world’s great explorers. He’s like Columbus or Neil Armstrong.” No matter: the boy resents that his dad has essentially chosen his career over his family.
That’s not to say Josh doesn’t appreciate dad’s alternative family, the hardy crew who put up with Frank’s intensity and also sympathize with the kid’s umbrage. More than once, longtime colleague Crazy George (Dan Wyllie) or fuzzy-faced tech J.D. (Christopher Baker) offers parenting advice (immediately rejected, of course). Even the one local with a speaking part, Luko (Cramer Cain), takes note when Frank pushes Josh too far, and offers to play surrogate dad for a few minutes (when Frank sends Josh off in a huff, Luka plays good sidekick and goes with the boy, who’s “too angry” to climb effectively).
In a word, the set-up for Sanctum is as tired as it sounds, and it’s not long before a storm and consequent flooding turn the expedition into The Poseidon Adventure underground. Frank and company head into the deep dark cave, where Josh will become a man, Carl will learn that money can’t buy everything, and Frank — who expresses s a colorful disdain for the weekend climbers like Carl: “You people have no idea! You’ve spent your life wrapped in cotton balls!” — will come to appreciate at least a couple of emotional connections.
Amid all the melodrama, Sanctum offers something like distraction in the form of 3D images of the caves, as well as those angry individuals passing in and out of frame. But as usual, the technology — the same sort used by James Cameron for Avatar — can’t make up for the unoriginal plotting. As soon as you hear from the exceptional diver Judes (Allison Cratchley) that her legs are “stuffed,” you know that she really should be taking a break, as Josh thinks, rather than pressing ahead, as Frank allows. As soon as Carl declares, “This cave’s not gonna beat me,” you know it will. And when Victoria insists on diving in her rain gear, refusing to put on “the wet suit of a dead person,” well, you know she’s going to regret that decision too.
Victoria’s fate is especially gnarly, and not a little conspicuous because she’s the film’s designated Girl. That is, she pouts, complains, and opines on matters she knows nothing about, while the men mostly focus on practical matters — or the occasional philosophical debate, as when Carl accuses Frank of “playing God,” and Frank counters, “There’s no God down here! This place doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you or me… We’re just bits of dust passing through.” (He also recites Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, so you know his crusty exterior is just that.)
The Girl, by contrast, tends to do exactly what she’s told not to do, each instance leading to disaster. In no instance does she function as an individual, someone who has her own interests or identity. Instead, she’s the sign of Carl’s greed and excess, the outside observer of Josh’s need for a nurturing parent (or at least a girl who admires him), the irritant to Frank’s gargantuan pride.
In these multiple roles, Victoria can only be inconsistent, which makes her tedious, as well as deeply unsympathetic. Reportedly based on a “true story,” Sanctum is a hoary version of whatever it might have been. Here again, adventuring is men’s work — and fantasy.