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Movie Review

Some men, when they want to feel particularly manly, retreat to their man caves—spare rooms or basements filled with tools or sports paraphernalia or other accoutrements of he-dom. For other men—and women too, for that matter—DIY caves aren't enough. So they search out of the real thing.

Frank McGuire is an admitted bad husband, bad father, bad all-around guy when it comes to such things as mowing the lawn or making the mortgage payment. But he's an awesome caver, and he's all about exploring their fearsome depths to the fullest—going, truly, where no one has gone before.

"He's the most determined cave diver in the world," Carl, Frank's rich benefactor, says.

Josh, Frank's son, smiles. "That's because he doesn't have anything else," he says.

Like most teens, Josh rolls his eyes over his dad's interests. Sure, Josh is a good cave diver in his own right, but that doesn't mean he likes it. In fact, he's beginning to hate it. For a month every year, Frank—who long ago separated from Josh's mother—pulls Josh along on one of his dark, dank expeditions into stone and water. Every year, Josh goes … and counts the days until he can return to life topside. Forget father-son bonding: To Josh, it feels more like a master-slave thing.

Then, during an expedition to a huge, partially underwater cavern system in New Guinea, something goes amiss. A huge storm sweeps over the region and floods the caverns, trapping Frank, Josh, Carl and two others—Carl's girlfriend, Victoria, and Frank's longtime assistant, George—in the unexplored dark. There's no chance of a rescue. The rooms they've explored are now blocked and, as Frank tells them, "Everybody up there already thinks we're dead." There's only one option open: Plunge forward through the cave's unexplored cracks and crevasses, gambling that through one of them they'll find a way out.


Positive Elements

On the surface, Sanctum is a story about a father and son bonding under the very worst of conditions. (And you thought that Cub Scout camping trip was special.) "He's a h‑‑‑ of a fellow, your old man, once you get to know him," George tells Josh. And while Josh is skeptical at first, one of the benefits of being trapped in caves is that it leaves you plenty of opportunity to get to know your estranged, equally trapped relatives. Josh grows to appreciate his father's drive, courage and determination. Frank learns that his son is courageous in his own right—and a pretty nifty kid to boot.

On the surface, it's also a story that spends time teaching us to stay calm under pressure, and that our decisions have consequences. It's about courage and perseverance. "No matter what happens, you never, ever give up," Frank tells Josh.

But what lurks underneath the surface in this movie undermines many of those positive messages. Both Frank and Josh do give up, in a extraordinarily tragic way. Read on.

Spiritual Content

The word sanctum means "holy place," and spiritual allusions, some positive, some negative, hang from the film like stalactites. I'll deal with several comments made about (perceived) gaps in God's presence in my conclusion, but for now, here's a quick, incomplete rundown of some of the remarks that are made:

Frank calls the caves "my church." When explorers find one of their team that got lost, the found member says, "Thank God, thank God," and appears to mean it. When Frank begins to lead the way through the unknown caves in a search for light and freedom, he says, "See you on the other side."

"Could've picked a better choice of words," George says.

Frank and a woman named Judes swim into a massive room that Judes says looks like a cathedral. Frank quickly dubs it "St. Judes' Cathedral"—just moments before Judes' breathing apparatus comes apart. An aside: St. Jude is revered as the patron saint of desperate causes—a symbolism that's wholly appropriate here.

Sexual Content

Victoria, chilled to the bone after a swim through the caves, is forced to strip down to her underwear and huddle underneath an emergency blanket with her also nearly naked boyfriend, Carl. Josh moons a camera. Someone makes a crude allusion to a nun's nether regions.

Violent Content

Apparently, there are lots of ways to get killed underground, and the film shows pretty much all of them—often in grotesque detail.

When Judes' re-breathing apparatus malfunctions, she panics and drowns. We see her suck in the killing liquid before she stops struggling. Her gray corpse makes a couple of cameos later in the story. Another caver's body is found trapped in the cavern, apparently drowned. Yet another succumbs to "the bends," a painful condition that divers often suffer if they don't go through a lengthy decompression procedure to help their bodies adjust to different pressures. This particular victim begins coughing up blood before telling Josh to go on without him. Josh assumes he's just taking a rest break, but in reality the man plans to leave the group and die alone so he won't slow the survivors down.

Another explorer, hanging from a rope-pulley system, gets her hair tangled up in the contraption … the upshot being that her hair and scalp are pulled slowly and painfully off her head. She whips out a knife and tries to cut herself free, but when she "frees" herself (cutting the wrong thing), she falls to her death (bouncing off cave walls as she goes). We later see her distorted, mutilated corpse. Two explorers get into a fight: One of them falls on top of a stalagmite, which punctures his back.

As horrible and graphic as these deaths are, none are morally problematic. The two "mercy killings" we see are. In the first, one of Frank's cavers smashes into a series of walls before plunging into the water below. Josh tries to recover the body, but it floats away, only to resurface a short time later. Then, the survivors learn, to their horror, that the man is still alive. His body is shattered, his face is half torn away, and bubbles of blood burble from his mouth. Frank, with obvious affection, says goodbye … and holds him under the water. It's not a peaceful release. The man struggles, clutching and grasping as Frank maintains his resolve.

"You want to play at being adventurers," he hollers at Carl after the deed's done. "This is it."

It's a tragic death, but it only foreshadows another killing, one that's given even more attention by the filmmakers—and therefore more attention here, in my conclusion.

Crude or Profane Language

The f-word surfaces more than 30 times, the s-word at least 25. There are several exclamations of "a‑‑," "h‑‑‑," "p‑‑‑ed" and the British profanity "bloody." Characters misuse God's name (pairing it with "d‑‑n" at least three times) and abuse Jesus' name another dozen.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Frank and Josh share a bottle of booze, brought down to celebrate the team's cave exploration achievements. A cold Victoria says she wishes she could have brandy. Someone smokes around a bevy of oxygen tanks. Morphine is mentioned, as are more recreational drugs.

Other Negative Elements

Frank and Josh have a rocky relationship in the beginning, filled with lots of yelling and swearing and mutual disrespect—Josh at one point accusing his dad of murder. Someone steals the last of the re-breathers, essentially leaving other explorers to die.


For thousands of years, cultures around the world have associated death and the afterlife—often the worst sort of afterlife—with caves and the Underworld. The Maya tell of the underground realm of Xibalba, or "place of fear." Superheroes from ancient Greece and Rome were constantly traipsing down to Hades to be tested and tried. Dante's Inferno places hell as an underground realm far from the warmth, light and love of God.

The caverns of Sanctum feel much the same. Dark. Cold. Forsaken. A land of fear and insanity, pain and death.

When Carl and Josh fly above the cave mouth in a helicopter, Carl says, "If we go down here, even God won't know where we are." Later, Frank thunders, "There's no God down here. This place doesn't give a rat's a‑‑ about you, or me, or any of us. We're particles of dust down here."

And yet, Frank also calls it his church. "I can hold a mirror up and say this is who I am," he says.

The caverns in Sanctum, then, become places where those who don't believe in an outside divinity can search for a spark of it inside themselves. And it will have to be found inside, because in Sanctum's ethos, no one else is watching. These folks are on their own. Frank's church is a purely naturalistic one, a Darwinian one, where the weak succumb and the strong survive … but only to the next day, when new trials await. It is the Church of Self, a place to find what meager transcendence we can find within ourselves, and to live not for purpose, but out of habit.

[Spoiler Warning] Considering that, is it just sad, or is it somehow fitting that Frank dies in his church? Wounded and weak after fighting with Carl, he turns to Josh and asks for "a little help." Josh knows his father is asking him to kill him—to put him out of his misery. And so he does, after his protests fall on deaf ears. Josh pulls Frank into the water, the two bathed in the feeble light of a small glow stick. Josh, weeping, pushes him down, looking for all the world like he's performing a tragic baptism.

For Christians, baptism is a symbol of death and new life: We plunge into a metaphorical abyss, only to be pulled back up into new life. But when Josh raises Frank's head to the surface again, there is no rebirth … only death and tears in the dark, and the unfulfilled hope that Frank found escape through oblivion.

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