Sanctum is an action thriller involving exploration of an extensive, world-class cave system in Papua New Guinea. The movie is inspired by an actual flood event in an extensive cave in the Nullarbor Plain of Australia in 1988. It is not a documentary, but designed to be a realistic, albeit embellished, account that includes non-stop action as the team is faced with its deadly situations and decisions. Although released in 2-D, 3-D, and IMAX formats, Sanctum is not a science fiction or horror movie. There are no monsters, weird creatures, on humanoid inhabitants, such as are found in the recent films, The Cave, The Cavern, and Descent (Parts 1 and 2). And it is not a fantasy underground adventure like the recent remakes of Journey to the Center of the Earth and Alice in Wonderland. Sanctum is about caving, an adventure sport that is practiced by knowledgeable and safety-minded people throughout the world.
Most movie goers may not recognize the authenticity of the techniques and equipment used in the film. As one who has spent over 45 years exploring and studying caves in over 35 states and several countries, I am familiar with modern caving in some of the great cave systems on the planet and I personally know many of the cavers who are making new discoveries every year. Therefore, I can attest to the great care that the director Alister Grierson and writer-producer Andrew Wight have taken to provide realism to the cave setting. In fact, Wight was a survivor of the Nullarbor event and is an experienced caver and diver. That having been said, Sanctum takes some liberties to create an exciting story. Nearly every activity in caving is included in this epic, such as climbing, rappelling and other rope work, squeezing and negotiating tight passageways, and of course cave diving. This story shows what can go wrong with each of these if care is not taken or if safety is ignored. Sanctum is an adventure thriller that consists of a long string of incidents, dilemmas, and solutions. Each situation is believable on its own merit and has happened at one time or another in caving. But in Sanctum, all of these have been combined, one after another, and continually pose challenges and demand solutions. It reminds me of the classic and entertaining cliff- hanger movies of old. This makes for an exhausting tale in which the audience feels the tense and claustrophobic situations. It is unlikely that such a string of events would ever be encountered by a single caving expedition. However, individually accidents do happen, although they are relatively rare because cavers strictly abide by established safety rules.
What disturbs me is that many of the reviewers of the movie to date miss the point of the film and show an ignorance of what caves and caving are like. Here are some typically unfair remarks and why these are so.
"There is little character development." Caving is very focused. When you are underground, you only think about your surroundings and mission. You do not think about the outside world and your life there, much less about your interpersonal relationships with your fellow cavers. It is true that when caving, you learn a lot about your compatriots and their personalities (just like in the movie), but you do belabor interpersonal relationships. Team members are selected based on their proved track record underground. If there are challenges and threatening conditions, you focus on those as a team, as in the film. Many reviewers apparently wanted more psycho-drama among the protagonists.
"The dialog is terse, unrealistic, and too loud." I disagree. Under the emergency conditions such as shown in the film, the dialog of the characters would be similar. There would be a leader and a plan would develop, just as we witnessed in 2010 in the case of the trapped Chilean miners. As for loudness and screaming, this is the only way to make yourself heard in the presence of running water in the echoing confines of cave passages. I know this from experience. One's senses in a cave are very much focused on sight and sound and the immediate surroundings.
"It is a tedious tale." Yes, trying to escape through a cave system that is flooding could easily be tedious and, given the extent of the cave in Sanctum, finding routes and traversing them would take considerable time. Cave exploration is not a fast process.
I have been on hundreds of caving trips, including some grueling ones in long and complex cave systems. For me, the representation of the features in the cave and the techniques of exploration are portrayed quite well in Sanctum. Again, this movie is an adventure story that accurately shows what caves are like, even though it combines many of the dangers into a thrilling series of unfortunate events. It is a fictional tale, but realistically portrayed.
Reviewers who expected Sanctum to be a high-culture movie or one that explores interpersonal interactions among the characters have missed the point completely. Unless they have gone on trips into extensive and wild caves, they have little idea of what caves and caving are really like and what this movie is all about. They can not possibly understand the dynamic among cavers under adverse conditions. I find more faults with the reviewers' logic and understanding than they can legitimately find in the film. The movie stays true to what extensive caves are like and the techniques used to explore them. Given that, it is also one heck of an adventure thriller.