Director and producer James Cameron has arguably released two of the most notable and commercially successful films of the past several decades. In 1997, Titanic wowed audiences with its sensational graphics and old-style melodrama to become the highest-grossing film of all time. It held this record for 12 years until it was surpassed by Cameron’s next directorial effort, Avatar, which was released in 2009 and has a worldwide gross of over $2.7 billion. With such an epic and lucrative legacy behind him, avid cinephiles have been impatiently awaiting the release of Sanctum, Cameron’s newest work.

The 3-D film stars Richard Roxburgh as diver extraordinaire Frank McGuire, who sets out on an expedition to underwater caves in the South Pacific, the last unexplored territory remaining in the world. Frank and his team, including his 17-year-old son Josh (Rhys Wakefield), make it deep into the cave when a torrential flash flood hits, trapping the group inside. Frank realizes that the only way to survive is to continue on, looking for another exit. As the group navigates the aquatic cavernous maze, they must all take hazardous and potentially fatal risks to survive.

It goes without saying that Sanctum‘s most redeeming quality is its use of technical effects. The film stands apart from Cameron’s previous two movies in that it takes the adventure underground, creating a marvelous and visually extraordinary subterranean world. The 3-D graphics, while not as impressive as those in Avatar, undeniably enhance the optical marvel produced by the film. Still, moving images of caves are only stimulating and exciting up to a certain point. By Sanctum‘s conclusion, the graphics feel relatively overworked and lose the wow factor upon which Cameron has built his entire career. Overall, however, the film’s cinematography and special effects are praiseworthy and are likely to see recognition at the 2012 Academy Awards.

Where Sanctum falls short is in its screenplay. Neither Titanic nor Avatar was particularly lauded for its plot, as both received some general complaints about the shoddiness and cheesiness of the dialogue. Yet, they are both miles ahead of Sanctum in this regard. The protagonist embodies the overused stereotype of the distant father that finally wants to reconnect with his son. What little character development exists within the film is predictable and histrionic, causing otherwise tense moments to come across as laughably tacky. While it is fair to say that the focus of Cameron’s movies is not and should not be on the screenplay, there is no excuse for a movie that is so cliched that it detracts attention from the more impressive elements of the film. Moreover, the generally mediocre acting performances do absolutely nothing to compensate for this deficit.

While it is easy to dish out scads of criticisms of Sanctum, particularly in comparison with Cameron’s last two films, it also provides an enjoyable and overall worthwhile viewing experience. If one ignores the appalling screenplay and second-rate acting, what remains is sheer entertainment, which was undoubtedly what the film was setting out to achieve. It is definitely worth seeing, but do not enter the theater with high expectations.

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