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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Just when you thought James Cameron could do no wrong, here comes The Abyss II... I mean, SANCTUM. Of course, the camera work and cinematography are outstanding, but everything else is straight out of the old 70's disaster flicks. Shallow characters, giant plot holes, clumsy and uncomfortable dialogue, etc., etc. Rule of thumb: If you find yourself rolling your eyes more than once every 30 minutes, it is not a good film. On the other hand, if you are looking for a mindless and somewhat entertaining film, this might be great for you!
As we begin what is supposed to be just another cave dive in a long series of exploratory cave dives at this site, we are told that the cave will completely flood in "four, maybe three days". No explanation is given, but we have to assume that Papua, New Guinea's rainy season starts with AMAZING exactitude and WHOOSH! the caverns flood. No worries though; they will have ample warning from the guy with the radio on the surface. Of course, this delicate piece of equipment is not even in a tent. It's just sitting in the middle of the jungle with a tarp stretched overhead (how on earth is a radio signal supposed to penetrate through hundreds of thousands of tons of twisty turn-y cave rock? - Feo). Having established the completely unbelievable and poorly thought out threat, the writers have pretty much told us what is going to go wrong so we don't have to worry our pretty little heads about it.
Now, welcome to exposition land. That land of characters didactically expounding to each other facts which would obviously be known to all so that you, the audience, can be clumsily brought into the loop. That land that has you watching an inordinately long 3D walk-through of the cave system on a characters lap-top; the only function of which, I assume, is to have you think to yourself "Wow... those caves are very deep."
Toss in a half-hearted attempt at character development, a few one-liners, a father-son conflict, a few personality quirks and we're off to the races!
Two of our main characters, Frank (Richard Roxburgh: IN THE WINTER DARK, VAN HELSING, FRAGILE, MURDEROUS INTENT) and Judes (Allison Cratchley) enter the water in what appear to be Abyss dive suit rip-offs. Of course, Cameron did THE ABYSS as well, so it's more of a recycling than a rip-off. You know, the suits with the full face mask which allows them to talk, smile and grimace for the camera. The ones that have lights shining directly INTO the divers face so you can actually see the smiles and grimaces, which makes no sense at all unless you are a cinematographer. They then do what cave divers do, and supposedly what these two characters have been doing most of their adult lives; squeezing through tight passages and banging around in the dark. I'm no cave diver, but I'm going to assume that if you have to squeeze your cheeks together to get through a passage, you should consider it impassable, but we'll let this slide in the interest of story-telling.
Now you might want to hold your suspension of disbelief tightly; coo in its ear and comfort it in fact, because the ride gets bumpy from here on out. In all this banging and squeezing, one of the characters damages one of the very delicate looking air hoses. It then basically explodes, leaving the character airless. Wow... professional cave divers... no back up air supply, not even a small "pony" bottle (which another character magically produces later in the film because, hey, he was supposed to live!) There is no alternate mouthpiece available to allow a diver to share his air supply. They are immediately reduced to what even a once-a-year reef diver knows is the last resort; buddy breathing. We later learn through more heavy-handed exposition that buddy breathing with these pointless, Abyss-like face masks is almost impossible.
The afflicted diver now freaks out, again, which is kind of hard to accept from a professional, highly trained cave diver. As a group of professionals, these people are complete screw ups. One of the script writers, John Garvin, is a fully certified Closed Circuit Rebreather (the type of breathing system used here) Mixed Gas Dive Instructor / Trainer, so it wasn't through ignorance that these issues arose, but a low opinion of the audiences gullibility. In fact, Mr. Garvin was the dive coordinator and played a character (Jim Sergeant) in this film. His writing partner and producer is Andrew Wight, an underwater explorer. One of Mr. Wight's personal experiences is the basis for this film. With all of this expertise on hand, it's even more difficult to swallow the barrage of stupidity thrown at us. However, the lack of writing experience of the two combined does explain the other weak points.
In addition to the inexperienced writers, we have director Alister Grierson, a relative newcomer. He has a number of shorts under his belt over the past decade, but only one other feature film (Kokoda) Based upon the similar feel the acting in this film has compared to THE ABYSS, ALIENS and even AVATAR, I can't help but think that Cameron had a strong influence here, but it may just be a younger director duplicating a style.
In fact, the character of Crazy George (Dan Wyllie) is basically the Hippy character from THE ABYSS. Roxburgh does a very good job with his stoic character, but the rest seem to be trying desperately to quickly put their characters out there with as few gray areas as possible. I can only assume Grierson was telling them things like "In these two sentences, make your character X" with X being whacko, sweet, bitter, angry, etc. For some reason, we also have a large number of shots of Crazy George grimacing like a sock monkey. I have no idea what that was supposed to convey! I doubt you will either.
The non-white character Luko (Cramer Crain) is snuffed out quickly while helping the more deserving whites to survive, so we don't have to worry about when that bit of unavoidable business will take place.
The remaining female, Victoria (Alice Parkinson: X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) was supposed to be, I think, a strong and capable character. It's kind of hard to tell because she spends most of her time being bitchy and stupid. She's the least experienced of them all, but at the same time barks out her ill-informed opinions at everyone around her. She adamantly refuses a wetsuit because it comes from a dead body, and spends the rest of the movie requiring special attention because she's freezing to death.
In life or death situations I can tell you that the whole "icky" factor goes out the window almost as fast as the "I wanna be cool" factor. Anyone in this position would have worn the wetsuit. Hell, most of us would have worn the dead body if it would keep us warm. This may have been more of director Grierson fumbling with getting the actors to portray black and white personalities.
Some of the cave scenery is nice but, honestly, nothing compared to some cave diving scenes you can see on NatGeo. Some of the scenes were filmed with stunt divers in actual caves, while others in a tank. An admirable effort, but the end result is a very bland overall look. They would have done well to include more actual footage of some of the truly amazing cave structures out there, above and below water. After a couple hours in this stucco looking environment, your eyes are almost screaming for something else to look at.
I really was expecting to like this film. I even liked THE ABYSS, though it had many of the same weaknesses this film had. But The Abyss had aliens.
While this film tried to fill the same villain-who-really-isn't-a-bad-guy-but-went-nuts role, it didn't have the aliens to lift it out of the depths and provide some magical explanations for obvious plot flaws. There are certainly a few points where you are on the edge of your seat, but they are few and far between.
2 shriek girls.
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