In the past ten years, James Cameron has slapped his name on only three (non-doc) movies as a producer… Solaris, Avatar, and now Sanctum. There’s no question that the man knows ‘spectacle’ when he sees it (and that he’s picky), but the real issue is if spectacle is enough when its script is so sorely lacking; no film Cameron’s been associated with has ever been nominated for a major screenwriting award. Not one.

So, are you willing to sacrifice decent dialogue and believable characters for a spectacle? Well, based on his past box office numbers, the answer is unquestionably ‘yes’, so the same should hold true with Sanctum. And in a time of year where dreck usually dominates, you could do a lot worse.

The spectacle here is a cave diving expedition into the “last unexplored part of the earth”– the (fictional) Esa Ala cave system in New Guinea (Sanctum was actually filmed entirely in Australia). At times claustrophobic and at other times so vast that you can’t tell the characters from a fleck of dust on the movie screen, Sanctum is a pretty solid action/adventure with more than a few gripping, edge-of-your-seat moments. Though it’s marred by cardboard-cutout personalities and dialogue that’s so trite you’ll wish the characters would just stop talking for a few minutes, the action wins the day, and Sanctum is actually more fun than not.

Lead explorer Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is the best at what he does, but he’s stubborn and arrogant. His son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) is petulant and sick of his dad’s crap. And Carl (Ioan Gruffudd) is the rich, dashing benefactor who isn’t comfortable unless he’s BASE jumping. When the three of them (and their insufferable personalities) get stuck in a cave several miles underground, they need to work together, and, with the help of the token female and the token hip assistant, try to make it back to the surface again.

The only problem is, flood waters have blocked their only escape, so they’re forced to go even deeper into the cave and its lagoons to find a way out. Food is hard to come by, the batteries in their headlamps are dying, and arrogance is at an all-time high. Plus, it takes a special skill set to go from cave climbing to cave diving within just a few short minutes, so there’s the whole ‘life-threatening’ factor at play, too.

Freshman director Alister Grierson (with Cameron, no doubt, watching over his shoulder) has put together a visually-stunning film that dazzles on every level. The 3D is consistently good (and appropriate), and the cinematography is at times breath-taking in its scope. At other times, as the characters get trapped in caves that are barely big enough to squeeze through, and when combined with the frantic breathing sounds from the characters’ scuba tanks, the effect is actually pretty nerve-rattling.

The same can’t be said for the screenplay, which is inspired by screenwriter Andrew Wight’s similar real-life cave diving adventure in Australia. The story itself is entirely captivating, but Sanctum is a crystal-clear example of how actual screenplays should be left in the hands of professionals. (This is co-writer John Garvin’s first attempt at a script, too.)

Overall, Sanctum not only proves that James Cameron is still the king of the spectacle (if not ‘the wooooorld!’), but it also just goes to show that sometimes (only sometimes) a bad script can be overlooked.

3/5 stars