Sanctum is a prime example of why 3D -- even the kind that's hyped for using the same "camera system" used on the mediocre yet financially unassailable Avatar -- will never make a weak film better. And, seriously, when has a film's camera system been a selling point outside of Super 70mm Panavision back in the '60s and Imax, now? Ironically, and contrary to their strong suit, Imax is retrofitting theaters with screens almost 20 percent smaller than their traditional screens so that, for the same price, you get ... a smaller screen (albeit one with the latest digital projection) to see a movie in a 3D gimmick that no one really needs.
Is the 3D of Sanctum sometimes effective? Sure. In very specific scenes that amount to a couple of minutes. But, despite what you hear about the benchmark nature of Avatar-style 3D, what worked well on Pandora is not nearly as successful when utilized in a close-quarters, mostly practical, film about aquatic cave explorers. Having to hold my head straight in order to avoid that fluttery strobe effect that sometimes blurs action and distorts spatial depth, is one thing--after all, Hollywood is only asking our brains to process two dimensions in a way evolution hasn't made possible yet. But it would have helped if Sanctum justified the extra $5 with something more than a film whose narrative complexity and characterizations recall a pop-up book that moves.
Sanctum tells the tale of a group of cave divers led by Frank (Richard Roxburgh) who is mapping out an unexplored cave system in Papua New Guinea, seeking the point where its underground river empties into the ocean. Frank has a contentious relationship with his rock-climbing son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and his wealthy benefactor, Carl (Reed Richards himself Ioan Gruffudd), a wannabe adventurer who thinks his money imbues him with ability. Frank's crew consists of his longtime cohorts, a group of rock-star technicians and divers who come off like the cast of Twister, right down to Crazy George (Aussie favorite Dan Wyllie), Frank's road warrior, second-in-command.
This band of clichés becomes trapped deep in the system when a cyclone arrives unexpectedly early and begins flooding the caves, forcing the group to brave the unknown and find the way to the ocean, and freedom.
Sanctum is the sort of based-on-true-events film (its co-writer, Andrew Wight, was actually trapped in fallen cave) that, between the 3D and the sensationalist survival story, excuses itself from the need for any particularly believable characters. Director Alister Grierson handles the underwater logistics well and, occasionally, the promise of its 3D conception pays off. But the irony is that Sanctum is the kind of movie that would go over way better at home with alcohol and friends. Friends who like to make fun of the self-induced misfortune incurred by (mostly) annoying characters attempting to tame natural forces they have no business fucking with. There are a few people you even hope will die -- why do these idiots refuse to listen to the cave diving expert? I'd eat a corpse if he told me to -- making Sanctum akin to a cheesy '80s slasher movie starring a big hole in the ground. Part of me wants to like that, but in terms of actual underground claustrophobia, suspense and fear it was done better (and with mutants) in Neil Marshall's 2005 film, The Descent.
The script, by first-timer John Garvin and Andrew Wight, is rife with not just clichéd characters but also dialogue that winds between overly dramatic exposition to throwaway jokes that are tired attempts at generating a feeling of camaraderie amongst characters who are almost impossible to care about, either due to their scripting or performances. While Roxburgh ably chews on every scene and Wyllie reminds you of far better films he's been in (Chopper), the rest of the cast varies from the one-dimensional to the downright bad as the narrative goes through the motions of knocking them off one by one. Subtlety is not a tool in these writers' kits.
There were a couple of decent moments of tension, and the film is effective at putting you in the environment, but the general shoddiness of Sanctum belies the certitude that the filmmakers have in the weight of James Cameron's name and the limits of his technology in which they've packaged this bit of overpriced mediocrity. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is one so riddled with complexities that it's easy to forget the plain truths that get buried under the larger geo-political picture -- ones that become even more muddied in the cacophony of Western politics and what passes for "news" in the U.S. media.
As much as suicide bombings are deplorable, they are also an extension of abject desperation (and manipulation), whose abhorrence sadly delegitimizes the plights of people oppressed by governmental and economic forces beyond their control, while giving the media an excuse to ignore the injustices that those people rail against. The conditions of poverty and oppression are a catalyst for terrorism as much as the perversion of a religion. Conversely, occupying a country and subjugating its people, bulldozing their lands and culture, is not only untenable but seems to practically assure violent resistance no matter the rationale. The cycle of violence and retribution springs eternal.
But it was a cycle seemingly broken in the West Bank village of Budrus.
The town's namesake film, Budrus, documents the tale of Ayed Morrar, a Palestinian Fatah leader who rallies the townspeople in a non-violent resistance movement against the Israeli Separation Barrier, a wall meant to stretch the length of the West Bank, but whose route encroaches on territory beyond the 1967 borders. The wall's intended location would separate the townspeople of Budrus from much of the hundreds of acres of olive tree groves that have sustained the village for centuries.
Morrar, who has been incarcerated in Israeli prisons due to his political affiliations, organizes the demonstrations with the help of his family, which is documented by director Julie Bacha, to create not just a compelling argument against Israeli overreach, but also promote the idea that not all angry Muslims (or even most) strap on a bomb belt as means to an end. When Israeli soldiers respond to the chanting protests of the villagers with tear-gas and concussion grenades, their (understandable) rock-throwing response elicits disconcerted chastising from Morrar. He knows he's working against the preconceptions that exist in the Western mind when they see a bunch of pissed off Arabs. Fortunately for Morrar, the Israeli Border Guard's heavy-handed tactics work in favor of his intentions, drawing scorn and unlikely assistance from not only international activists but also a few actual Israelis (though none from the government or state media), a fact that seemed to shock and awe Morrar. It's easier to demonize groups than individuals and the sense that not all Israelis think in monolithic terms about the Palestinian Question aids Morrar in keeping the demonstrations peaceful -- at least on his side.
But the film is also told from the side of the Israeli Border Guards, particularly Yasmine Levy, an Arab-Israeli whose compulsory military service puts her in direct conflict with the women of her lineage (and who sometimes chant her name), but which doesn't seem to shake her allegiance to her country.
Is it a balanced documentary? Not particularly, but then neither is the nature of the conflict. Budrus is first and foremost advocacy filmmaking, but it doesn't feel like a film that's trying to change the minds of the ideologically entrenched, instead relying on anyone's common sense of justice to make its argument. When a group of people fecklessly lay claim to land that doesn't belong to them, disrupting the lives of people who already live under the yoke of occupation, what person couldn't sympathize, particularly, when those people (wisely) utilize the methods of Gandhi in order to magnify the draconian policies imposed on them? In freedom-loving America, a place distrustful of monolithic government imposing its federal will, you'd think a bunch like the Tea Party would be allied with such salt-of-the-earth concerns. But that only seems to apply to oppressed people who look, and sound, like themselves.
The larger questions of the Israeli/Palestinian issue are left for another film. Budrus' focus on this one place and issue, to the exclusion of the 800-pound gorillas that are the Gaza Strip and Palestinian statehood, is wise. Those answers are not on the horizon, and their complexity would only obfuscate the film's point. But the film's message, brought to life with compelling immediacy, works as a contrast to the larger events currently taking place in Egypt.
Budrus represents an opportunity to prove that consensus can be reached and progress toward peace can be achieved without falling prey to the conventional wisdom that violence is the only answer -- by walking in the shoes of the "other" to discover their humanity.
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