By Elias Savada | February 4, 2011

James Cameron may be the king of the cinematic world, but plastering his name all over the trailers and posters promoting this film doesn’t change one obvious thing about it:

It stinks.

“Sanctum” follows a bunch of desperate and temperamental cave diving/underground mountain climbing experts/fools caught unaware deep in the subterranean depths of the Esa’ala cave system in Papua New Guinea as a cyclone dumps torrents of water on them. When they come up for air, the smell of a rotting script has already started wafting in their wayward direction as they battle time, stupidity (“I don’t need a wet suit down here.”), depleting oxygen tanks, draining batteries, various depth/pressure illnesses, and attacks from alien monsters (just kidding). Any of the actors thus caught in the crosshairs of this sulfurous stench must have been trapped in the suddenly misaligned headlights of a well known executive producer’s other box office vehicles. No doubt, they felt they had nothing to fear.

You’re might be feeling that same mesmerizing attraction—and Universal Pictures hopes you are! Like moths drawn to the marketing flame. Will you be one of the unfortunates suckered into theaters this weekend before you realize you were duped into witnessing a film “inspired by a true story” but lacking any true inspiration? I felt the dull, dark seascapes and occasionally stunning underground caves of this “3D epic underwater adventure” would have been better presented using conventional two dimensional moviemaking techniques. For all the patents in Cameron’s 3D family, the effect is underwhelming here.

No need to mention any of the actors involved. All play stock characters (billionaire adventurer, his game-but-not-that-intrepid girlfriend, the spurned and pretty son of the expedition’s trailblazing, heartless leader, a devoted sidekick, some National Geographic tag-alongs, etc.) and spout one cliché after another. For diversion you should count the number of times the phrase “Are you all right?” is uttered, usually just before someone in the group gets a send off to uncharted territory, often at the hands of a person who was apparently coached by Dr. Kervorkian. Another game to play as your mind wanders—watch the audience roll their collective eyes with the delivery of such limp lines like “He’s broken every bone in his body!” or “There’s no God down here!”

Underwater techies John Garvin and Andrew Wight may known everything there is about extraordinary natural vistas—no doubt more effectively viewed on IMAX screens—and the deadly conditions involved in this extreme sport, but even Wight (also a producer), who was on the underwater trek upon which the film is based, can’t write convincing dialogue or create compelling characters. This is their first screenplay. Director Alister Grierson, who has one previous feature (2006’s “Kokoda”) to his credit, manages a few tense moments, but he tends to leave his cast adrift in a rudderless muck.

It’s sad to see a baby abandoned by a father, but “Sanctum” left me crying at the bad parent shenanigans that could have been fixed with some qualified writing and directorial oversight. It pales in such shocking comparison to “Avatar,” “Titanic,” and any of his other mega-hits that I wonder about the prowess of the man picking the people to run the project. As such, nothing can raise this sinking ship.

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