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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for an action-loving audience.
. "Sanctum"

A certain dryness permeates the atmosphere of the underwater caves that provide the setting and uniqueness for this James Cameron-backed disaster movie in one of his signature habitats.

Exploring all the permutations of falling victim to nature--both of the physical world and human--bad luck is brought to bear on a collection of cave divers with differences of agenda. For most of the expedition in the largest cave system on earth, tough-as-nails master diver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh, "Van Helsing") has been calling the shots as the team attempts to find the cave's presumed route to the sea, a task that has proved treacherous.

A stern, demanding leader, Frank reserves his greatest disappointment for his strapping son John (Rhys Wakefield) who never seems, in his eyes, to do anything right. Josh turns out to be, however, the more adept diver and rock climber in the team, a fact Frank learns to admit grudgingly.

Carl (Ioan Gruffudd, "W"), the financier behind the project, treats the project as his latest claim to be idolized for his genius, sporting his wealth and accomplishments around like the king of the roost. In an undertaking like this, involving care and expertise in the combination of first-time cave exploration and underwater diving, his alpha-male cockiness is detrimental to a dangerous degree, starting with his introduction of a non-diver into the group, girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson).

Conflict is immediately in the air as an argument rises over whether Liz (Nicole Downs), a member of the dive team, is physically ready to make a major thrust underwater into an as-yet unexplored leg of the cave complex. Insisting that she's ready to do it against opinions to the contrary, she becomes the first victim of the natural forces and bad judgements.

As this tragedy is absorbed by the team, an unexpected storm, which turns into a cyclonic horror, hits the area like a bull on a rampage, to the point that rocks in the caverns move and block passageways. The team finds itself trapped in a part of the caverns from which rescue is impossible. Survival now depends on a life-and-death search for the as-yet unfound route to the sea, which may not even exist. Their efforts take them through every peril imaginable, not the least of which is the rancor that grows into murderous competition between Frank and Carl.

While it's a classic setup for intense suspense drama, writers John Garvin and Andrew Wight's screenplay doesn't rise above a made-up quality that lingers as each new death on the trail of difficult circumstances, questionable calamities (one experienced diver getting the bends) and bad decisions take their turn in eliminating the players one-by-one. And, the casting doesn't help.

Lacking one highly charismatic actor, what we do have in this mostly Australian and Welsh cast is a range of thespianic weakness and strength, placing Roxburgh in the strongest position. This experienced pro may be above his normal casting level but he shows considerable muscle in being in the moment for the important ones. Young Wakefield comes through enough for us as the paternally scorned figure finding the father he's never really known or been accepted by, earning a few pats on the back from some of us.

Gruffudd, a highly capable actor, here turns into a stock villain of the smart-ass variety under the part inherited from writers Garvin and Wight. Parkinson fills her slot in the design adequately well but earns a special nod for her very convincing panic attack in a nightmarish diving challenge. Anone who has experienced panic will be able to relate to this moment in director Alister Grierson's film.

David Hirschfelder's score is way overdone and emotionally pointed. Cinematography by Jules O'Loughlin is pro and well directed for its 3-D effects. It had to have been a sustained and very difficult shoot. Source lighting, partially from the head lamps that mix in with an ambient glow, isn't always logical, but given the huge underwater challenges, well within the boundaries of convention and acceptibility.

I can't shake the feeling that this is more a case of devising an action plot in order to employ James Cameron's 3-D techniques developed for "Avatar" than a story on its own literary merits. The artifice behind the effort, unfortunately, shows in the superficiality of the characters, some groan-worthy dialogue and character progression, B-movie timing of the elements to create urgency and, thereby, drama, and more.

What it is on the plus side is a breathless journey for which the special effects are both demanding and well executed, and the natural formations around the magnificent and singular Gold Coast locale of Austalia's Queensland are well exploited for our visual enjoyment. No stunning "Avatar," this, but action fans are likely to give it a fair run for the money and I'm betting it'll open on top for the weekend.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Richard Roxburgh as master diver Frank leads the way.
His way.

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