Lost In the Water

Go ahead and add underwater thriller “Sanctum” to a list of reasons never to go cave diving. The flick is based on the true story of an expert spelunker/diver who gets trapped with his team (and teenage son) in a mysterious cave that’s slowly filling with water. The team believes that somewhere below its feet, the cave water leads to the ocean, but they don’t have a map — or actual proof that the path exists. And with their entrance completely blocked, the only way out, as the tagline reads, is down.

“Sanctum” is another one of producer James Cameron’s epic explorations of picturesque natural landscapes: dwarfing, sparkling and utterly devoid of nuanced characters. There’s the gruff leading man Frank (Richard Roxburgh) and his rebellious son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), cocksure Carl (Ioan Gruffudd of “The Fantastic Four”) and his bubblegum Barbie girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson). Each is written as a cartoonish caricature of a person and the effect is as stifling as the waterlogged cave they’re trapped in. Though some make admirable attempts at breaking through the movie’s entrapping screenplay (most notably the youngest cast member, Wakefield), others, like Gruffudd, resign themselves to cookie-cutter kitsch — Carl speaks with a forced, gum-bearing smile and calls his girlfriend “babe” in a mocking monotone. Like we haven’t heard that before.

Luckily, in true Cameron fashion, paint-stripping dialogue takes a backseat to visual thrills. Director Alister Grierson keeps the audience in a state of near pitch-black suffocation as divers scramble to stay alive — avoiding jagged falling rocks, drowning or starvation. The striking scenery is doused with a shipload of visceral, teeth-grinding gore — actors hang precariously by their scalp-hair, scrape limbs against gritty stone and claw through wet, air-tight cavities.

In most films, 3-D effects are added afterward for the sake of charging an extra $3 at the box office. The practice usually results in a series of awkward close-ups — stills of golf balls rolling toward the audience, or Nic Cage’s CGI mug peering menacingly out of the screen (“The Green Hornet” is inexplicably playing in 3-D right now).

“Sanctum,” however, was actually conceived with 3-D technology in mind. Cameron has been developing and perfecting his own 3-D technology for years — his Fusion Camera System is being used to glorify lengthy, uninterrupted shots of the cave, rather than mimic the frivolous 3-D craze of the ’80s. The expansion of space allows the audience to experience the cave in all its spacious grandeur — sharpening layers of glistening rock, a corroding cathedral’s dilapidated walls and gushing bursts of unimpeded water.

It’s likely that “Sanctum” will draw parallels to big-brother “Avatar,” though it also hamstrings itself with a shriller cast of characters than the latter’s sag-faced ensemble. And unfortunately for Cameron, it’s also bound to have a harder time keeping its head above water. (C+)

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