Murphy’s Law is… err, sorry. Sanctum is a story of the old mantra, “what can go wrong, will go wrong.” Nothing goes right for these people, from deaths before their cave-trapped peril even begins to the mountain of dramatized end-the-suffering styled drowning, Sanctum is all about milking the dramatic.
Oh, and it’s also about plastering James Cameron’s name all over it despite the famed director sitting in as a producer and nothing else.
Sanctum’s outset is about the cave, the crew of climbers beginning with a lavish fly-by in a helicopter to set scale, this monster of a hole ready and willing to gobble all who enter. Unfortunately, it’s not just about the cave for the entirety of the runtime, and these characters actually need to talk. Ioan Gruffudd leads the cast in annoyance factor, followed closely Rhys Wakefield, the latter given an impossible personality early if only to make the character arc more impossible to miss. Gruffudd never changes.
At times, Sanctum can be harrowing, perilous climbs required through rushing water as an overhead hurricane wipes out the Peruvian landscape. All of that water has to go somewhere, and gravity says that’s down. Sitting in an underground cave is not ideal. Those moments of tense safety lines, unsupported rock crevices, and lengthy falls hit their mark.
No doubt that rock climbing or cave exploring is deadly, light-deprived, and mentally/physically straining. Sanctum uses that “inspired by a true story” line though, which means creditability is crucial. In real life, co-writer Andrew Wright was trapped for two days with fourteen people, a rescue team extracting everyone. This film narrative seems to ditch all of it, the endless array of freak accidents, unlucky breaks, and basic bad luck too implausible to believe. All true stories play with the facts; Sanctum plays with it for the sake of an otherwise meandering father/son relationship.
That’s the biggest knock against Sanctum, seemingly doing all of this to succeed at reconciliation. In the midst of what they go through, from assisted suicides to broken bones and snapped oxygen lines, it seems almost petty and selfish. It never feels like we’re dealing with the triumph of the human spirit or the will to survive, only that father and son can finally begin to understand each other. How lovely, just not here.
This. Is. A. Mess. Sanctum’s AVC encode from Universal is well off, a high bitrate ensuring the incalculable amounts of water rushing forth onto the actors is free from artifacting. It is too, quite a small feat of digital encoding considering just how much of it there is, and the breathing room it needs to keep up. Even banding proves minor, the focused headlights enough to end up disastrous in the wrong hands.
Beyond that, we’re in trouble. Sanctum’s nagging blemish are these brief flirtations with interlacing. That’s about the only way to describe it, the distinctness of the jagged headsets specifically proving the most offensive. It’s not aliasing either, but a definitive break-up of the image. It can be prominent amongst many light sources, from rain drops that are lit from the head lamps to bright splashing waves. Many of these brief faults are quick to pass, frames even, but enough that there’s that sense something is amiss.
Inside these caves it’s dark, and Sanctum was shot digitally, so the level of low light noise causes a further intrusion on image quality. CG effects are blended in with varying degrees of success, so those certainly play a role too. Other digital imperfections include a handful of scenes with distracting vertical lines, putting the characters inside an overlaid prison cell of sorts. Black levels love to wander too, the underwater stuff some of the strongest, random shots on dry rock some of the worst.
Colors steer towards a pale palette, flesh tones weakening a bit when you spend a lot of time under the surface. Even above, the greenery of the landscape has sort of a dreary feel, appropriate enough to fit the serious, naturalistic style of the movie. The finest of detail is usually held back, much of the intro rather awful, while the close-ups as characters gleam at each other, head lamps at full brightness, is enough to please.
Everything in Sanctum is meant for total realism, and that goes for the audio with its dialogue… except it’s not. In fact, it sounds anything but, as if it were dubbed and recorded in post. It has this unnatural perkiness to it even in the cave system.
Elsewhere, this a a forceful and aggressive DTS-HD affair, producing rampant surround effects as the water begins its path down the walls, light drips in areas not yet engulfed, and an immersive underwater effect while dives are taking place. Water also hits with force as it crashes into lower levels, producing rumbles as it’s incoming, and once its presence is most certainly known.
Positional dialogue is used for effect on a few occasions, although seems forgotten as the film moves on. Stereos keep their activity levels high otherwise, an early helicopter landing great as the rear propeller wraps around. Bats call out in each channel, as do the birds near the surface. It’s a fantastic piece of audio design except for that dialogue fidelity.
Commentary time, this one from director Alister Grierson, actor Rhys Wakefield, and co-writer Andrew Wright (the latter being the one involved in the real life drama). Deleted scenes will sap around nine-minutes of your time, while an excellent if slightly congratulatory three-part making-of takes 47-minutes to get through. Nullarbor Dreaming is an equally lengthy documentary about the true story Sanctum was loosely based on. BD-Live and D-Box support are here too if you’re interested.