It is with a mixture of relief and bewilderment that I learn that there was no actual loss of life in the real-life spelunking misadventure on which Sanctum is based.
Relief, not only because everyone was saved, but because it means however rotten the fictionalized movie account might be, at least it doesn’t defame the dead. And bewilderment, because I have a hard time imagining what would possess someone fortunate enough to have lived through the basic premise of the film without loss of life to extrapolate a tale of such perversity and inhumanity.
Andrew Wight, who was leading an expedition into an underwater cave system in western Australia in 1988 when a cyclone struck, trapping 15 people underground, has story and screenwriting credits for Sanctum. In real life, everyone was rescued within six hours. The following year Wight produced an award-winning documentary about the adventure. For the last ten years he has produced IMAX and TV specials for James Cameron, whose executive producer credit for Sanctum is responsible for much of the attention this 3-D Australian production has gotten.
The shocking thing about Sanctum’s fictional survival story, relocated to Papua New Guinea, is not that it kills off one expedition member after another, often quite brutally. The shocking thing is how callously it treats their lives. More than one team member is euthanized by his fellows, submerged and drowned after sustaining catastrophic injuries.
That’s not counting the team member who euthanizes himself after succumbing to the bends, deliberately falling behind and then hiding himself in a crevice so that he won’t be a burden to his concerned teammates. Then there’s the one who dies after her air hose breaks, who panics when her partner tries to share his air with her, forcing him to shove her off to drown. Were any of these characters in any way based on the real people involved? If you were one of the 15 people trapped in that expedition, do you think you might feel a little queasy watching this film, knowing that all this was conceived by the man who led that team?
If there were sympathetic characters grappling with the morality of their choices, Sanctum might have achieved some measure of thoughtfulness. Not only are they not sympathetic, they’re barely characters. “I wouldn’t want to share an elevator with any of them, let alone be trapped with them in a cave” was the comment from my guest after the screening, the first of a number of lines about the film I wish I had thought of first. You will wait in vain through the whole movie for a line with a fraction of that wit and intelligence.
Leading the expedition is a character I’ll call Hardass Robo-Dad (Richard Roxburgh, Van Helsing). As Robo-Dad’s awed colleagues keep explaining to his aggrieved son (Rhys Wakefield), whom I’ll call Aggrieved Son, Robo-Dad is the world’s foremost spelunker, a subterranean explorer comparable to Columbus and Neil Armstrong. They also keep telling Aggrieved Son that his father isn’t really a bad guy, “once you get to know him.” Here is some free advice: You may think someone is a great guy, but if his kids think otherwise, don’t try to tell them, unless you are one of the kids yourself. They know what it was like to be raised by him, and you don’t.