Adventure movies allow viewers to experience the thrills and terror of being caught in a fight for survival against great odds, without actually being in danger. This is the main reason why movies like Sanctum are so entertaining; they offer a glimpse of an exciting experience most people don’t ever get to have.
Released in 2011, Sanctum is about a group of cave divers whose lives are put in danger due to a range of unexpected circumstances. This is not an unusual occurrence for cave divers. In fact, Andrew Wight, one of the film’s co-writers, underwent a similar experience that inspired him to make the movie. Wight’s real-life connection to the plight of the movie’s characters may be one of the reasons the film depicts this type of event with such thrilling intensity.
The Real-Life Inspiration for Sanctum
Wight spent over 30 years of his life cave diving around the world. However, one experience in particular stood out in his memory more than others.
In 1988, Wight was leading an expedition through a cave system on Australia’s Nullarbor Plain. This would actually be an important expedition in his life for a variety of reasons. Specifically, Wight and his team thought it would be interesting to make a film about their expedition. This marked his start in the film industry.
However, on the last day of the expedition, as the team tried to haul their equipment away from the site, an unexpected storm flooded the cave’s entrance, resulting in a collapse that trapped a total of 15 people. The storm destroyed much of the planned exit route, so the team had to find a new way to escape. The process of getting everyone out took about two days, and the team was able to capture much of the activity on film.
Wight would admit that the movie he and his team were making would have been relatively uninteresting had the cave not collapsed. Although it was certainly a frightening experience, Wight also understood that the drama captured on film allowed him to attract the attention of others working in the industry. After the movie was released, fans would ask him when he planned on making his next project. This sparked an interest in making more films about the kind of adventures he experienced as a cave diver.
Wight would also later become friends with director James Cameron, who was interested in exploring the depths of the world’s oceans and using 3-D cameras to document the action taking place beneath the waves. This friendship helped Sanctum get made. After hearing Wight’s story, Cameron threw his support behind the project, becoming an executive producer on the film leveraging his experience with 3-D technology to give the film a more immersive quality.
This realistic atmosphere was important to Wight. Although the plot of Sanctum does not mirror his real-life experience, the overall sense of terror and claustrophobia certainly does. In interviews, Wight made it clear that he wanted to ensure audience members responded to the events on screen with the same palpable tension that he and his teammates felt during their expedition.
Wight put it this way when speaking about his goals for the film: “What I’m really excited about is the way people respond to it. And I think from my personal real-life experiences being stuck in a cave underground underwater and what that felt like to me, I can see visibly in the audience in the picture theatre that they’re having similar reactions. … It’s very visceral. And that feeling of claustrophobia and the feeling of being out of breath, it’s all tangible and real, even in the cinema.”
This is a major reason Sanctum stands out among other action films. Plenty of Hollywood writers and directors can imagine a fictional adventure story. However, not many have actually lived through experiences like Wight’s. With a person like him involved in the project, it was much easier to genuinely convey everything that such an adventure would involve. Of course, Wight also brought a degree of technical expertise to the production that boosted the movie’s overall sense of realism.
These are all key elements required for a successful adventure film. Viewers may not know what cave diving involves, but they can recognize when a movie is not realistic. Because Sanctum was co-written by someone who experienced events similar to those shown in the movie, authenticity is not a problem.