“What could possibly go wrong diving in caves?” posits lead female and inexperienced diver Victoria (Alice Parkinson, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) at the beginning of James Cameron’s latest 3-D spectacle, “Sanctum.”

Sanctum

At Quality 16 and Rave
Universal

A lot, apparently.

Based on the true story of co-writer Andrew Wight, “Sanctum” follows a group of cave divers that gets trapped in one of the world’s largest unexplored cave systems after a freak rainstorm collapses the entrance and begins flooding the entire cave. With the knowledge that the system does reach the ocean at some point, the initial survivors attempt to explore the depths against the clock.

Leading the charge is diver and hard-ass extraordinaire Frank (Richard Roxburgh, “Moulin Rouge”). With members of his party dying at nearly every turn, Frank is not afraid to make cutthroat decisions that create unrest with the other survivors — namely, with his son, Josh (Rhys Wakefield, “Home and Away”).

Forced to accompany his father on expeditions for the one month a year they’re together, Josh resents his father, not understanding the latter’s fascination with underground exploration, which his father chose over family long ago. While the film does live up to its suspense-thriller subtitle, it is the clichéd resolution of this misunderstood father-son relationship in extreme circumstances that ends up being the focus of the film.

That and the stunning underwater 3-D visual experience, of course. While Cameron received some backlash when he told Entertainment Weekly that every film would be better in 3-D (“Twilight?” “Mean Girls 2?”), if ever a movie were made to be in 3-D, it’s “Sanctum.”

Not only does the advanced 3-D technology (originally developed in 2007 for Cameron’s “Avatar”) make for breathtaking underwater imagery, it also makes viewers really feel like they’re there in the caves. For a movie about being trapped underwater, this is unnerving.

One of the first lessons the divers learn is that their worst enemy — even worse than the water, lack of oxygen, spear-like stalagmites and bone-crunching boulders — is panic. Divers become seized by the peril of their situation and are rendered incapable of making the rational decisions that would likely save their lives. 3-D glasses make this panic infectious. While our brains recognize that we are still seated comfortably in the theater, our hearts begin beating faster and faster as we watch the first victim realize in horror that her oxygen tube has been severed underwater. This is because when she reaches out, struggling for dear life, she is reaching out into the audience.

The 3-D aspect does do more than just add to the suspense. With visuals that seem like they belong in “Planet Earth,” “Sanctum” allows its viewers to experience the geological phenomena of underwater caverns firsthand. The divers refer to the different sectors of the cave system with religious terminology (hence the title), and the 3-D cinematography lets the audience see why.

Unfortunately, the film still fails at one critical component: predictability. From the start of the film, it is clear who will live, who will die and in what order. From the moment Victoria decides not to put on that wetsuit, we know it will have grave consequences — just as we know that one of the survivors will turn on the others. It’s these kind of overly stated signifiers that prevent the film from being more than just another thriller. The only difference is that we get to experience this one in three dimensions.

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