Backstory: Nullarbor Calling
In 1988, underwater cave diver and explorer Andrew Wight manned a team to investigate the Nullarbor cave system in Pannickin Plains, Australia. 5 tonnes of diving gear, electrical wiring, lighting and video equipment, food & other provisions were sent deep into the earth for a planned and immaculately organized expedition, whose main goal was ‘test human limits, test the limits of technical gear, and find the end of the cave system.’
Wight’s team held the record for the longest underwater cave dive in 1983, and the team was well prepared and equipped for the complex journey into a completely unknown world. From a large hole in the surface, the cave sloped down a rocky, severe angle before opening up into a ‘ballroom’ with a pool that led to the first kilometer of caves submerged in an undrinkable water with a level of saline that mimicked zero gravity buoyancy.
The team dived using a special propulsion vehicle invented by an East German who used his device to escape to West Germany. The first and only air pocket was another large ballroom / cavern, albeit much rockier, mandated dangerous travel over a surface covered by matter that long ago fell from the ceiling. At the end lay another pool of entry, and from there the team dived further, ultimately going nearly 3 kilometers from the mouth of the cave system before scheduling and their inevitable exhaustion mandated an end. They hadn’t found the termination of the caves, but suspected it eventually extended into the ocean.
As the team was preparing to strike the gear and head back to the surface, a freak cyclonic storm hit, and dumped 2 years’ worth of water in 25 mins., causing a flood of water and debris to seal the cave. The team apparently maintained radio contact, and they were eventually able to climb back up, carefully snaking and crawling around fragile boulders.
Because the expedition was designed to be filmed, cameraman Wes Skiles had already shot a wealth of fascinating, beautifully lit scenes of the divers moving through the caves underwater, lighting the caves for maximum dramatic effect. When the storm hit, he rescued the camera and continued to film the group as they bedded down, conserved food and energy, and eventually made their way back up.
The resulting footage was edited into a gripping little documentary, Nullarbor Dreaming (1989), which chronicles the mood shift as optimistic divers suddenly found themselves in a series of deadly circumstances. Using narration, a steady stream of fascinating facts, and simple graphics, the doc also incorporated stills of the freak storm, and Skiles’ post-cave-in footage, with his hushed comments as he explored the chamber that lay sealed in car-sized debris.
Wight produced the doc, and went on to a lengthy career producing numerous marine biology docs (Adventures of the Quest), and later teamed up with director James Cameron for the latter’s series of oceanic wreck docs, including Expedition: Bismarck (2002), Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), Aliens of the Deep (2005), Last Mysteries of the Titanic (2005), and Titanic Adventure (2005).
At some point, Wight’s dramatic event in 1988 eventually became a choice for a potential film project, and the two men teamed up for what became Sanctum (2011).
Main Story: Nullarbor Redux
The basic events of the Nullarbor expedition were somewhat reworked into a more dramatic tale of egotistical recklessness endangering the spiritual & pragmatic work of a similar styled expedition that sought to find the end of a fictional ‘world’s largest cave system.’
Worked into the drama were familiar James Cameron archetypes played by a virtually Aussie cast: there’s Carl (Ioan Gruffudd, attempting a terrible American accent), an arrogant financier with little regard for safety but a hunger for fame; his girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson, sounding more central European than American), a tough-as nails, Howard Hawksian woman able to work alongside butch men; Frank (The Rake’s Richard Roxburgh), the pragmatic / spiritual team leader who whips the group into shape and keeps them moving in the search for another exit (land or sea); his estranged son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), who manages to prove himself to his father and almost attain a rapprochement; and several team members who’ve been through hell with Frank and whose loyalty and friendship are unquestionable.
Novice screenwriter Wight wrote the script with fellow novice John Garvin (who also appears in the film), although one feels Cameron had a hand in guiding the pair through scene structure, since the film tends to follow the director’s template of big scenes buffered by moments of absolute sedateness, cocky blue collar language, and like Titanic, showing the audience via the characters’ own animated demos their route, goals, and where the danger points lie so audiences are aware of what’s potentially in store.
The cave sets are first-rate, the underwater cinematographer (captured in the same 3D process Cameron used on Avatar) is elegant, David Hirschfelder’s score coveys scope and empathy, the actors look their parts, and director John Grierson keeps the action scenes and sense of claustrophobia intense, but as a movie, Sanctum only makes it as far as a slick B-movie with a strong central core.
The first 25 mins. covers the team’s convergence at the cave system, descent, and first dip into the cave water, and is comprised of absolutely awful dialogue that guarantees none of the actors have a chance of developing their characters. It’s as though the screenwriters watched The Abyss several times, but their results at mimicking Cameron’s clichéd blue collar camaraderie is just lousy.
What exactly is “a Mongolian clusterfuck”?
And sample this Shakespearean repartee:
“You know, that’s bullshit on so many levels, I’m not even going to address it… Check this out. [A bottle of] Porfidio. I’m going to haul this sucker down 2000 vertical meters just to give you a shot, because your ass is so tight, when you fart only dogs can hear it.”
Like the opening of The Abyss, the pacing is similarly fast, but here it’s propelled by the team’s nemesis, financier Carl, who unfortunately isn’t dead within the film’s first third act. A character with no emotional grey zone for empathy, he’s also a moron. Case in point: he’s spending millions on a mission of glory, hungry to have his name attached to the cave system, and the entire expedition is being filmed with one HD handycam by himself, and his girlfriend.
Why did co-writer / producer Wight distill the details of his own personal experiences into such lazy rubbish? And knowing the types of personalities and the level of intelligence necessary for a complex expedition, why make his archetypes so banal, if not so stupid and unlikeable?
If one excised the monsters in The Descent (2005), what remains is a layered series of conflicts between sympathetic characters trapped in a physically hellish cave system; Sanctum has no monsters, but with its prickly warts, had man-eating creatures been added to the script, the film would’ve been marginally better than The Descent’s rival, the laughable The Cave (2005).
(Of course, the lack of monsters didn’t stop the poster artists from crafting a clever design.
When seen from a distance, the image changes from a have flanked by a jagged maw and a man in a diving mask to an Aliens / underwater ridge creature poised to bite Frank’s head in half.)
On the plus side, there’s a motif Wight integrated into the script in which water is the source of both peace and trauma for all divers. Frank’s first scene has him floating like a cadaver in the water, meditating before swimming to the rocks and getting the base ready for Carl’s arrival. As the team is affected by a number of disasters, Carl systematically floats and euthanizes maimed team members before his son Josh must do the same to him at the end. There’s a stoicism each diver attains when they realize they’re dying from massive injuries; drowning will bring sudden, massive trauma, but peace will follow soon after.
Like The Abyss, a character voluntarily deciding to drown is utterly horrifying, and the first death – Frank’s colleague and girlfriend Liz – is terrifying, because like Lindsey Brigman in Cameron’s 1989 film, she sacrifices herself in favour of husband Virgil because there’s only enough air to save one life. Frank’s assisted suicides are rather numerous, and that contrivance feels too neat; it’s meant to give some weight to disposable characters so the finale isn’t cluttered with extra figures, but it introduces an element of bathos, and makes Josh’s drowning of Frank far too neat.
The finale isn’t a surprise, but it turns to straight and predictable horror, mimicking the end points of The Descent where dead / missing characters pop out, sudden injuries put a hero terminal in a terminal state, and only one person survives. Had the writers been more sophisticated, they would’ve ignored the easy focus on ‘pure visceral terror’ and balanced it with drama based on consequences: Carl, Josh and Frank all survive, and they end up in a conflagration of a media frenzy as two sides spin opposite tales of the team’s demise after the storm.
Nullarbor Thrills on Home Video
Universal’s Blu-ray actually offers several more extras than the DVD. They share commentary tracks, and deleted scenes (basically trims that add little, although they would’ve slowed down the opening’s pacing to something better measured), but the BR features Wight’s excellent documentary Nullarbor Dreaming, in stereo, with rather cheesy but functional synth music supporting striking cave footage.
The making-of featurettes cover the film’s production which oddly featured elaborate training for the cast and great cave sets, but skimped on the terrible CGI helicopter for the title sequence. Most of the featurettes could’ve been cut down, as the editors ludicrously relied on padding the running times with full scene excerpts. The inference seems to have been to bloat the featurettes to 40+ mins. so there feel like value-added features that had to be exclusive to the BR when they could’ve fit on the DVD.
Just as grating is the BR’s authoring, which mandates skipping and shuttling through endless trailers and Universal logos before getting to the main menu. The featurettes have a “play all” option, but you can’t shuttle back to a prior featurette. If one pauses the disc, after a few minutes the screen saver kicks in, and the only way to return to the program-in-progress is to hit Menu, cursor through the menu system from Extras to Featurettes again, and hit Enter. A monkey could’ve authored a better navigation system.
Sanctum has a descent dramatic core, but once the main action scenes are over and we’re left with the film’s weak lead characters, clichés set in, making the film attractive to those fond of underwater danger tales. Without Cameron’s guidance the film could’ve been worse, but it also bears a lot of similarities to his own underwater films, flaws and all.
Universal’s released this title on DVD, Blu-ray / Digital Copy, and BR-3D / BR / Digital Copy editions.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan