'Sanctum': Black Hole
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Back in 1952, Merian C. Cooper of "King Kong" fame, along with media personality Lowell Thomas and film director Robert L. Bendick, presented "This Is Cinerama," a film designed to showcase the wonders of an ostensibly revolutionary widescreen film process that used a screen of such magnificent dimension as to create something like an all-encompassing visual experience. It was an omnibus film comprised of sequences designed to sell the wide variety of bangs that could be supplied by the cinematic buck: You, the viewer, were practically onstage at the opera, got so close to the raging waters of Niagara Falls that you could get soaked, and sat in the front car of a very exhilarating roller-coaster ride. Funsy!
"Sanctum," the first IMAX 3-D film to carry James Cameron's name in the credits (he's executive producer) since the filmmaker's groundbreaking and box-office-record-breaking sci-fi epic, "Avatar," is, in a sense, a "This Is IMAX 3-D," or, for those not seeing it in IMAX, "This Is 3-D." Its settings and scenarios are pretty explicitly designed to milk the "wow!" potential of the filmmaking technology at hand. No sooner have a couple of characters gotten to Papua, New Guinea, than they board a helicopter, and away they, and we, go, swooping over verdant green forests until they hover over the daunting perspective of what one character calls "the mother of all caves," a potentially vertigo-inducing abyss into which you, the viewer, will soon enough plunge into, through the technological marvel of ... well, you get the idea. Among the 3-D-simulated experiences to follow: ultra-deep-sea diving, rock-climbing, parachuting, getting caught in a cyclone, underwater claustrophobia, getting all of your bones broken bouncing off of three separate cavern walls in a single drop, and so on.
Some of these are pretty galvanic, and moderately impressively delivered, but unfortunately, while "This Is Cinerama" made the what-seems-in-retrospect-wise decision to concentrate on pure sensation-mongering, "Sanctum" deigns to tell a story, a story in which a sensitive son cannot come to grips with his enigmatic, emotionally crabbed, hard-ass perfectionist, cave-obsessed father. A story in which the characters say things such as, "Are we gonna do this, or are we just gonna talk about it?" and "Life is not a dress rehearsal," and "You gotta seize the day," and they say those things each within about 30 seconds of each other. Later, advising the adventurers under his charge concerning the disposition of the cave that they could very well be trapped in forever, the aforementioned cave expert (played with what some would suppose to be exemplary stoicism by Richard Roxburgh) intones, "This place doesn't give a rat's ass about you, or me, or anybody."
The rambling, staggering story line toggles clumsily between depictions of natural disasters and human error and/or treachery without ever hitting anything like a stride, to the extent that after a while the admittedly protean visual set pieces don't provide much relief from the dreariness. As students of cinema technology recall, Cooper and Thomas and Bendick's Cinerama dream was relatively quickly consigned to the novelty bin of cinematic innovations. If snappier motion pictures than "Sanctum" don't start materializing in the format quick, IMAX 3-D could wind up in a similar place.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.