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Movie Review: At Least Sanctum Looks Nice

James “King” Cameron has denounced most of the 3-D films that came in the wake of Avatar — many originally shot “flat” and retrofitted — but now has lent his name (as executive producer) and, more important, his patented newfangled motion-capture gizmos to an Aussie survival thriller called Sanctum. The acting is mostly blah, the dialogue from hunger, and there isn’t even a clear beginning to the story — it’s all throat clearing — until the first person gets killed. Then the storm arrives, the waters in the vast chain of caves near the Papua, New Guinea, coast begin to rise, and a lot more characters perish from drowning or falls or impaling or the bends. (The bends looks less fun than the impaling.) The central conflict (apart from Man versus homicidally indifferent Nature) is between resentful young Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and his big-deal cave-diver dad Frank (Richard Roxburgh), who’s more at home underground than in the surface world. (“Josh, I know I haven’t been anything of a father to you.”) Director Alister Grierson reportedly had his own brush with death in an underwater cave, so for him this is serious business — which means no Shelley Winters for bad laughs. There’s not much in the way of a good time, either.

Except …

The 3-D is pretty darn good. As usual, the images are murky — but whaddya expect, klieg lights? It’s a cave. It’s underwater. Otherwise, shot after shot is engineered to make you say, “Wow!” There’s great depth of field, with textured foreground outcroppings and layers of obstructions stretching into the distance, while narrow passageways slice into the darkness. Primordial shapes rise out of the screen. Puny humans are specks amid vast, cathedral-like spaces unseen by man or beast. This is what 3-D is good at, making us dream for an instant that we’re someplace we aren’t and could never be.

And then the headache comes.

Roger Ebert has railed for years against 3-D and recently published a letter from the great sound editor Walter Murch, who said our brains were never meant, evolutionarily speaking, to process all these “shifting convergences.” He calls 3-D “dark, small, stroby, headache inducing, alienating. And expensive.” (Tell me about it. You pay, like, three bucks for the glasses and are then commanded to “recycle” them.)

There are plenty of good counter-arguments to Murch, including one in Slate from science editor Daniel Engber, who says (I’m way simplifying) that our brains can adapt, and who praises animated movies like Toy Story 3, where the image “contorts visual space into a crisscrossing, emotional depth.” I knew I was responding to something!

But that’s not how it is in these lousy retrofits, which have a way of making even filmmakers with a strong visual sense look inept. I took off my glasses halfway through Clash of the Titans, which, though blurry, became more involving. Director Louis Leterrier knows how to bring out the primordial beauty of the rocky desert landscapes — but in bad 3-D those cliffs look like puppet stages.

Sanctum, meanwhile, won’t look like much on your TV screen (unless you spring for a 3-D HDTV, in which case there’s no help for you) but is fine for what it is. If only such movies were special occasions instead of the new normal. The irony is that most of the time, 3-D makes your brain struggle so hard that you don’t really “lose” yourself in the screen — not in the way you do in flat but more enveloping movies. You’re not in the shoes of the person on the screen; you’re the person in the seat squinting into the smudgy 3-D specs.

Photo: Universal Pictures