Review: Sanctum

02/04/2011 03:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sanctum is an underwater cave exploration movie that comes to us courtesy of Australia, and is presented by James Cameron. The packaging looks American, but the taste is unmistakably from the land of Oz.

Australia has released some of the most creative films in recent memory, like Wolf Creek, and Rogue. Horror films, of course -- the outback can be a scary place, and filmmakers use their experience of the land to give us a taste of its threats. One of the biggest is underwater cave exploration, which is the perfect setup for an Oz disaster waiting to happen.

The film was shot around Queensland and is based on the true story of the film's co-writer, Andrew Wight, who became trapped for two days in an underwater cave. When the main entrance was blocked off by a flood, his team of 15 divers had to look for another way out.

That's about in line with the premise of the film, except everyone survived in the real story. In Sanctum, director Alister Grierson piles on the deaths like he's in a contest with himself to see how quickly he can narrow down the cast to its two leads.

There's Frank (Richard Roxburgh), the veteran diver who leads the dangerous expedition, and his reluctant but stalwart son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield) who has more experience climbing rocks than he does exploring caves. Given the level of contempt Josh has for his father, it's a wonder he even goes on the trip.

Much of their relationship is dark and murky. You could say the dive is as much about exploring a secret cave as it is about exploring their sunken relationship. It's the kind of heavy symbolism you can't help but cringe at. And if that doesn't make you cringe, the acting probably will.

Grierson has difficulty conveying a sense of dread once things get dramatic down there. Half of the narrative tugs at our anticipation to find out what's in store for the explorers, and the other half asks us to mourn the loss of characters we've known for twenty minutes.

What works well dramatically, at least briefly, is that the group is composed of divers and rock climbers. The rock climbers are guests on an expedition that has derailed, and they are stuck with the frightening initiation of putting on diving gear and submerging in the cave's underwater system. From the perspective of someone who hasn't dived before, I was encouraged by the dramatic possibilities that presented.

From the perspective of someone who has seen James Cameron's The Abyss, I wondered why all of the underwater scenes weren't better.

Grierson makes sure to include everything: claustrophobia, a breathing apparatus that ruptures, the fizzy effects of the bends. But it's all handled so matter-of-factly, as if he was more interested in squeezing them all in for good dramatic measure. He must have thought at least one of those scenarios would get your blood pumping, so why not use them all?

None of it means much if you can't find a reason to invest in the characters. Frank and Josh's relationship is forced, but it could have been enough to sustain the film with stronger performances. The acting is the real distraction, and the ultimate obstacle blocking our interest.

The only element capable of bringing us closer to the characters is the 3D. It's a ruse, intended to put us right in the action.

I've already grown tired of seeing films in 3D. The compression of the image is one problem. The darker luminosity is another. Then there's that weird sensation I get almost immediately after putting the glasses on. It's hard to go two hours without an eyeball break.

The film was shot with the 3D camera system Cameron employed for Avatar. A shallow depth of field causes certain points in the frame to look softer than others. Our eyes are supposed to only look at what is in focus; otherwise if they stray to another part of the frame, there is a slight accompanying dizzying effect.

It comes close to replicating that feeling of being submerged in dark water, suffering from a lack of oxygen.

I'd rather just go on a dive.

It will be fun, dramatic, and exciting -- everything Sanctum was not.

Sanctum is now playing in theaters everywhere.