A team of underwater cave divers undergo a treacherous expedition to the largest, most beautiful and least accessible cave system on Earth. When a tropical storm forces them deep into the caverns, they must fight raging water, deadly terrain and creeping panic as they search for an unknown escape route to the sea.

Subterranean thriller buries plot, unlikable characters and tension.

Universal Pictures has been smart to try to exploit James Cameron’s cache as the executive producer in hyping this Australian-made thriller inspired by a true story.

While no one’s claiming Sanctum 3D is a subterranean version of Avatar, is it too much to hope the $30 million movie will offer fully-fleshed out characters, sharp dialogue and a coherent plot in addition to several gory/shocking scenes of death and suffering?

Hell yes. Instead, director Alister Grierson and scriptwriters John Garvin and Andrew Wight have dished up a B-grade survival saga that suffers from hammy acting, woeful miscasting, lack of tension and cliché-riddled dialogue"¦ none of it, apart from the expertly-staged action sequences, worthy of Cameron’s name in the credits.

The screenplay was inspired by Wight’s experiences when he went cave diving in the Nullarbor and got trapped with 14 other people for two days after the entrance collapsed when a freak storm hit the area.

Sanctum shifts the location to Papua New Guinea and follows an expedition to explore and film virgin caves led by experienced caver Frank McGuire (Richard Roxburgh), financed by rich American Carl Hurley (Ioan Gruffudd). The participants include Frank’s long-neglected teenage son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), with whom he has a difficult relationship, and Carl’s vacuous girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson).

After a cyclone floods the cave, the team faces a desperate fight for survival. Tensions between Frank and Josh escalate but you can bet there’ll be a reconciliation before the end. The body count rises but just when it seems three characters will make it, human conflict flares. The climax is as drawn out as it is predictable.

The deaths are rendered in a grotesquely graphic fashion, more redolent of a horror movie than a thriller, prompting a few anguished 'oohs’ and 'ahs’ from members of the preview audience.

The intrusive music swells and crests, sometimes when little or nothing is happening on screen, in an attempt to artificially heighten excitement levels: an oft-used device in the B-grade milieu.

The verbal exchanges are mostly portentous – 'This cave isn’t going to beat me" and 'What could possibly go wrong?" – or statements of the bleeding obvious such as, 'We’ve got to get out of here."

Several attempts at humour are lame or juvenile, typified by Josh baring his bum and one character commenting that 'Mexico is where I got the clap."

Not known for his subtlety, Roxburgh barks out orders, rants, swears, glowers, loses his temper and belatedly shows a spark of humanity. When the first victim perishes, he looks glum but doesn’t seem overly pained or willing to take responsibility. Roxburgh gets the briefest of speeches to try to explain his character’s inadequacies as a father, husband and functioning adult in the above-ground world. But that soul-bearing doesn’t make Frank any more likeable or admirable.

Wakefield does a decent job as Josh, the film’s only memorable, two-dimensional character, given the constraints of the script. Dan Wyllie provides a bit of comic relief as caver Crazy George. However, Welshman Gruffudd of Hornblower fame is a curious choice to play Carl, a stereotypically loud, egotistical, blustering Yank who ultimately shows he’s a coward. Yes I know he was Mr Fantastic/Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four movies but his American accent wasn’t convincing in those either; nor is Parkinson’s. Carl shows little emotion when his colleagues perish: could he really be that unfeeling?

As for the 3D impact, which uses the same kind of cameras deployed on Avatar, well, in my view it doesn’t add much value. An early scene in which three characters jump off a cliff into an abyss tethered to ropes looks just as fake as it would in 2D. And considering much of the action takes place in tunnels and other narrow spaces where the actors have limited room to move, the extra dimension doesn’t really enhance the spectacle or make it more immersive. If anything, it’s uncomfortably claustrophobic.

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1 hour 49 min
In Cinemas 03 February 2011,
Thu, 06/02/2011 - 11