You should NOT read this if you haven’t seen James Cameron’s: Sanctum, Produced by James Cameron, because I’m going to be giving lots of stuff away; not in hostile ranting, because I like disaster movies and I had fun with Sanctum. However, as a female with an IQ higher than a bag of bricks and the ability to not disintegrate into useless hysterics, I feel someone should stick up for our gender – someone who is actually pretty solid in an emergency.
There are three kinds of women in a movie emergency situation…scratch that, four:
1) The Capable Heroine: she is no one’s damsel in distress, because she’s so capable she’s quasi-superhuman. She knows her way around a machine gun and can easily switch off any fear reaction for the good of the team. This character is currently the most popular in Hollywood movies, which is refreshing since it used to be…
2) The Whiny Nuisance Who Gets Others Killed: she can’t run ten feet without spraining her ankle and needing to be carried out of danger. In fact, you can’t imagine how she’s made it this far when she has to deal with obstacles like traffic-heavy intersections and the meanie dog who lives next door. Supposedly she exists to make the men feel good about being so macho, and the women feel good about being so dainty, except the audience as a whole wants her to just die already.
3) The Stubborn, Loud Idiot: she’s the worst kind of character, because it’s clear the writers think they’ve created a “strong” woman. Doing the wrong thing at top volume despite all reasonable evidence to the contrary is NOT strength or independence, and women know that Mr. Male scriptwriter. I know you probably listen to feminists and think, “Wow, they are LOUD…loud must be the key to a strong female character,” but you’re not even in the ballpark. You’re trying to have your cake and eat it too – you want someone who needs saving, but who appears strongish for any women in the audience. Except we can tell the difference.
4) The Untrained, Determined Can-Do: she’s never been a Navy SEAL or had to scrap her way out of a bar fight, but she can still pull her sh*t together when that’s her only option. It’s do or die: she’s not making speeches about how the competent leader isn’t in touch with his feelings; she’s not refusing to do the smart thing because it would seem brutal or insensitive in daylight. She GETS that she now has to go into survival-mode autopilot and make decisions based on necessity and not emotions. Coincidentally, this character is most women in a dangerous situation, but she’s the least interesting to Hollywood.
In Sanctum Victoria (Alice Parkinson) falls definitively in the third category. I would be the fourth, Lara Croft would be the first, and Fay Wray is the second. This gives you an idea, although nowadays most female characters are either number one or number two, because it’s cartoonish and that’s easy to write. Number four takes more thought, because you can’t just write, “and then she broke his neck between her thighs!” or “and then she tripped on a rock and was vulnerable!” Subtlety, aka, realism is harder to do, and hey we’re in a hurry here!
But we’re discussing Victoria in Sanctum; she’s an infuriating number three, which means the movie thinks you should root for her, but no one will. So, let’s examine what her character does in several significant moments that I would have done differently. Am I saying I would have definitely made it out alive? No. But when I died, you’d feel something other than gratitude.
1) Continuing to Climb the Ladder When Instructed Not To: Once everyone realizes that the cave is flooding and they need to get the hell out, the team tries to escape through the normal route. Water is shooting through the exit and they need to climb a ladder, fight the water blasting them in the face, and get out. While Victoria is climbing, the rock the rope is anchored to starts to shift and it’s a big rock. Josh (Rhys Wakefield) and Luko (Kramer Cain) try to plant themselves in front of the boulder, but it’s not working. They scream down that the rock is moving and Frank tells Victoria to “Get off the ladder!” Victoria says, “F*ck that!” and keeps on going.
Here’s why this is the only slightly forgivable mistake that she makes. She had to really heft herself up, battling the flood water and dangling high above the cave. She’s panicked and she doesn’t have any formal training, so she’s more likely to scramble for what she sees as safety without listening to anyone. We could all make that mistake.
Except, once the boulder blocks the escape route and Luko is bashed mercilessly against the cave walls, thus breaking every last bone in his face and coming out looking like he got jumped by a cheese grater, Victoria should have decided to LISTEN from then on. Her character apparently has no awareness that she’s just caused someone to die a horrible, frightening death. And maybe it wouldn’t have been her fault and the rock would’ve fallen either way, but the way to show this is to have her character follow Frank’s instructions and then Luko is killed regardless.
What’s funny about this situation is that Victoria spends the rest of the movie getting in Frank’s face and accusing him of being unfeeling, and she doesn’t even acknowledge that she probably cost Luko his life. “You were a moron and Luko died,” Frank should have said, but he just withdraws from her abrasive loudness and continues to try to save everyone.
Here’s what I would have done: either I would have mistakenly thought, out of panic, that I should climb FASTER to get out of the way of the moving rock, or I would have done exactly what Frank told me to do. It doesn’t make me strong and independent to flout the advice of the most experienced member of the team; it means that whatever catastrophe comes of my refusing to listen is now on my conscience. It also means that I don’t make that mistake again: from this moment on, I do EXACTLY what Frank tells me to do.
2) Refusing the Wetsuit: Frank realizes that he will need to take them deeper into the cave system in order to find another way out. He and Crazy George (Dan Wyllie) begin removing the wetsuit from a female member of the team who’d accidentally drowned earlier so that Victoria won’t get hypothermic. Victoria refuses and the movie offers two possible, and very tepid reasons why: 1. Victoria is trying to be respectful to the dead by not scavenging off a corpse, which is hugely stupid under the circumstances, or, more bafflingly 2. Victoria thinks that wearing the dead woman’s wetsuit is bad luck.
Consider her actual words: “I’m not f*cking wearing the wetsuit of a dead woman! I’d rather be cold and alive than warm and dead!” Let’s break that down and see if we can figure out what the hell the writer means. Victoria’s concern is that wearing a dead person’s clothes means she will also die, because the death and the clothes are all wrapped up in one another. Therefore, in order to stay alive, it’s a safer bet to get hypothermia. This would strike anyone, no matter how unreasonable, as suicidal logic. Let’s put it in a different context: “I’m not f*cking using the gun off a dead guy! I’d rather be defenseless and alive than prepared and dead!” or “I’m not f*cking eating the food from a dead guy’s kitchen! I’d rather be starving and alive than satiated and dead!”
Here’s how that exact same scene looks with me or any other determined can-do. Before Frank even has to say anything, I’m peeling the suit off the dead woman. I may even be holding her by the feet and shaking her upside down in order to get the suit off faster. In fact, if it were me, Frank would have agreed with me but been a bit put-off by how quick I was to rob from the dead. “Morrow, could you wait a few seconds?” he’d say, and I’d say, “Nope! It’s effing cold in this cave and it looks like we’re going to have to dive to get out.”
3) Using the Knife When Frank Tells Her Not To: While traversing a difficult passage between tunnels, suspended over a dangerous, violent whirlpool, Victoria’s idiot boyfriend shines a flashlight in her face and she slips and gets her hair caught in the metal rungs of the ladder. This scene is brutal because she can’t get a better handhold and hoist herself back up, meaning she’s basically hanging by her hair. The movie lets us know this wouldn’t be comfortable by showing us a close up of her gradually being scalped. Frank, like always, has a plan to get her loose, but it involves her not panicking and using her knife to cut herself free. “Don’t use the knife!” he yells up, as she completely disregards him and saws away at her hair and ear. Fortunately for the audience, this causes her to plummet into the whirlpool of death, therefore finally putting us out of her stupid misery.
I can see being in so much pain that you grab blindly at whatever could help you, but at this point in time, anyone else would have followed Frank’s instructions to the letter. Unless you had the memory or attention span of a gerbil, you would grit your teeth and wait for Frank, because you know he’s going to figure it out. He’s figured it out every other time and he’s on his way to figuring this out, too.
If she’d been wearing the wetsuit, her hands wouldn’t have been so cold and useless, and she would’ve been able to hoist herself up and wait for help. Many, many other women would have made it out of this situation alive, because all it calls for is common sense and any faint iota of self-preservation.
Disaster movies are always more effective if you aren’t cheering for the characters to hurry up and perish already so you don’t have to continue to suffer through their bad choices. The circumstances themselves aren’t enough to make the movie great.