February 2, 2011
The expectation that an audience will suspend disbelief and identify with an onscreen world and its characters is something I usually consider a fair request. But when the film in question itself suffers a crisis of identity, then the necessary contract between the filmmakers and the audience has been violated, and thus spectatorial alignment void. When access to an onscreen world is broken even if ‘moments’ are beautiful, the whole becomes fragmented and the experience abrasive for the viewer. Due to some terribly trite dialogue and a complete breakdown of generic and tonal consistency, Sanctum 3D (2010) is one such film that sadly fails to communicate with or suture in its audience.
Opening with an incredibly beautiful shot of a diver floating through an abyss of water the film offers first a notion of disembodiment. Reflecting well the content that will follow, Sanctum suggests already that the physical human body and its connectedness to other weighted objects or entities is not a given: constancy and attachment both psychological rather than physiological constructs. Cutting to a village in Papua New Guinea (although the film was actually shot in Australia on the Gold Coast), Sanctum briefly, and I dare say too flippantly, establishes its premise and characters: a diving expedition into a system of underwater caves soon becomes a fight for survival after storm waters flood and collapse the entrance, leaving a small group of individuals, ranging from veteran to first-time divers, with the challenge of working together for the grand prize of their lives.
Like many Australian productions before it, Sanctum is somewhat concerned with the relationship between human development and the persistence or resilience of the natural world. Illustrating this with ease, our most expert diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is sure to explain the wonder of the natural world by visual experience in the first instance; “Let me show you.” There is also the suggestion that the natural world is itself a force to be reckoned with and that human affinity with it is far from established, the “unknown” and compelling harsh beauty it presents formidable; “This cave’s not going to beat me.” Inauspicious as it is, the natural world is also posited as sublime; the overwhelming beauty and awe in which it inspires God-like. The unexplored areas our protagonists discover become the “sanctum” in question, and several sequences reference the bible, religious undertones resonating throughout, most notably towards the film’s end when our Christ-like Son of God performs a sort of baptism as he forgives his Father.
But even with these moments where subtext and visuals come together to achieve something worthy of serious and contemplative reflection upon issues pertaining to the human condition, the film constantly falls apart due to clumsy dialogue – dialogue that jars terribly with the visuals and abrasively halts any meditative aspects the film might otherwise champion. Moreover, its crisis of generic and tonal identity mean the films flits far too often and too disjointedly between being a serious drama, a tense horror/thriller and a light-hearted blockbuster action/adventure flick.
Forgiving its pitfalls proves difficult. Disruption in the natural flow of both the narrative and the visual story leave Sanctum a film with a great deal of promise and some truly magnificent moments but, most unfortunately, too confused for its own good.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.