“Sanctum” – Subterranean Stereotypical Blues

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Alister Grierson’s “Sanctum,” a 3D adventure yarn about cave exploration which should first be avoided by claustrophobics, and then by anyone who values their movie time, brought back memories of a kid in my dorm: The Mole. Save for jogging that recollection and some fairly good FX, there is little to recommend this standard survival gambit.

The Mole, on the other hand, was anything but standard. Perennially appearing as if he had just returned from a death-defying escapade in some dank, dark grotto, he was rarely out of costume, his outfit capped by a miner’s hat, built-in lantern and all. Where exactly the caves were near our Iowa campus, I never discovered. But I did learn a new word.


Spelunking is the study of caves. Thus The Mole and the two or three lesser gnomes always at his side, though never achieving celebrity or title like their champion, were spelunkers. I assume they accompanied him on his delves. I don’t recall ever seeing any of them in a class. Such characters are part of the enriching experience that is college.

Unfortunately, the characters in director Grierson’s feature length drop down the rabbit hole can’t hold a miner’s candle to The Mole. They comprise the typical assemblage of risk taking globetrotters, put before us so that we may guess who, if any, will endure the derring-do about to be perpetrated. The undisputed leader is Richard Roxburgh’s Frank.

Only the venue changes for the Franks of this genre. But it’s always something life-and-death dangerous. Rarely do you see a film about a famous accountant, admired by his fellow accountants, but estranged from his coming-of-age son and wife. Alas, he left them to handle the suburban home and hearth on their own. The CPA wanderlust called.

And then, to the background of the Tsunami of all tax seasons, sonny boy is tossed into the scenario. Dad’s pals try to convince the young man that he just doesn’t understand the old man…that he’s not such a bad guy at all, but merely driven by the forces of his great number crunching. But the kid, who has super accounting skills despite himself, is angry.

We can only hope that the harrowing mess of 1040 forms they’re about to challenge will prove the crucible that makes father and son realize the importance of making peace and bonding. Now, transfer said stereotype to where the stalagmites and stalactites grow, and there you have “Sanctum’s” plot. Remember, the stalagmites come up from the floor.

Yet to be more precise, the tale isn’t just about perusing caves. Making it even tougher for particularly emotive viewers, Frank and company specialize in mapping the paths of waterways that stream through said caverns. That means scuba gear, bubbles, divers gesturing by hand and lots of talk about the bends. Oy, thinking about it, I can’t breathe.

Of course it’s no small accomplishment to effect such discomfort. Thus it occurs that a documentary detailing the fine engineering and art direction that went into making “Sanctum” would easily trump this otherwise trite affair. Combining CGI magic with tricks dating back to Edison’s Black Maria, technically this is pretty good filmmaking.

Unfortunately, the script by John Garvin and Andrew Wight doesn’t rise above the usual boilerplate. There’s a special art to the screenplay in close quarters, evidenced best by the biting dialogue so magnificently articulated in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” (1944). But then that was the handiwork of no less than Ben Hecht, John Steinbeck and Jo Swerling.

Here, fed the usual fodder and son enmity via Mr. Roxburgh’s disappointing dad and Rhys Wakefield’s reluctant chip off the old block, our minds tend to wander. Gosh, confined and bored. If only there were some good cave drawings to at least take up the slack. The equally clichéd supporting players do little to assuage the unease and ennui.

Ioan Gruffudd is Carl, the playboy/financial backer/daredevil who arrives on scene with his pretty girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) in tow. Better watch him. To show us exactly what kind of hairpin he is, Carl doesn’t just climb down to the expedition’s control central, but skydives. More down to earth is George, Frank’s right-hand man. Gee, hope he survives.

While we learn a bit more about the holes in our landscape than we knew going in, the filmmakers miss a chance to complement the action with truly intriguing facts. If only they had dug up the Mole. I’m sure he could have shed some informative light on the subject. As it stands, viewers determined to avoid “Sanctum” are advised not to cave.
“Sanctum,” rated R, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Alister Grierson and stars Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield and Ioan Gruffudd. Running time: 109 minutes

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