Sanctum -- Film Review

Soggy theatrics render this gorgeously-shot underwater 3D excursion more shrill than thrilling.

"What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?" asks one of the newer members of an underwater expedition through one of the world's most breathtaking but least accessible cave systems.

She's about to find out the hard way, along with the rest of her ill-fated team, when a violent South Pacific storm cuts off their only known exit in the subterranean 3D adventure, Sanctum.

Despite being presented by James Cameron and inspired by a real-life incident experienced by caver and co-scripter Andrew Wight, the thriller proves to be a considerably less harrowing experience than it might have been.

Banal dialogue, over-modulated performances and melodramatic scoring combine forces to sink the stirringly photographed proceedings quicker than that treacherous flash flood.

While Cameron's name and the mid-winter promise of an exotic 3D locale could give the $30 million production an initial boost, the only blue characters to be found here are the ones with hypothermia.

Set in the South Pacific's Esa'ala caves but actually filmed off Queenland's Gold Coast as well as in South Australian caves, the picture concerns the not necessarily unified efforts of the assembled crew, led by seasoned, headstrong master diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh), to find an alternate escape route.

Among those who aren't so great at taking orders are Frank's estranged 17-year-old son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield), an obnoxious American financier (Ioan Gruffudd) and his inexperienced girlfriend (Alice Parkinson).

With time quickly running out in their water-logged labyrinth, the dwindling crew members must either follow Frank's lead or come up with their own survival plan.

It's admittedly hard not to think of 127 Hours while watching Sanctum unfold.

But where the Danny Boyle film created unbearable tension through an economy of dialogue and skilled filmmaking, Alister Grierson's second feature effort (after 2006's fact-based war story, Kokoda) suffers from a talky script and thematics that play out more like The Poseidon Adventure minus the camp guilty pleasure aspect.

The film does best in its quieter sequences, where there's an undeniable ethereal beauty in Jules O'Loughlin's underwater photography, especially when the occasional shaft of light is pressed into stirring high relief by the same Cameron/Pace Fusion 3D Camera System utilized for Avatar.

Unfortunately that spell is constantly being broken by either the forced dialogue (credited to Wight and John Garvin) or composer David Hirschfelder's heavy symphonics, which are just too outsized for those tight, claustrophobic spaces.

Opens: Friday, February 4 (Universal)
Production companies: Relativity Media, Wayfare Entertainment, Great Wight
Cast: Richard Roxburgh, Rhys Wakefield, Ioan Gruffudd, Alice Parkinson
Director: Alister Grierson
Screenwriters: John Garvin, Andrew Wight
Executive producers: James Cameron, Ben Browning, Michael Maher, Peter Rawlinson, Ryan Kavanaugh
Producer: Andrew Wight
Director of photography: Jules O'Loughlin
Production designer: Nicholas McCallum
Music: David Hirschfelder
Editor: Mark Warner
Rating: R, 112 minutes