A survival film about cave divers trapped in a flooded New Guinea cavern, Sanctum was an Australian 3D production executive produced by James Cameron, himself an enthusiast for underwater activity. Inspired by the real-life struggles of divers in similar situations–including parts of the film’s technical crew, some of whom later perished in situations eerily similar to those in the film–Sanctum was a modest success on its release. It earned a healthy return on the filmmakers’ investment, but with only middling reviews and no major stars aboard, it quickly sank into the cave of obscurity after its 2011 release.
As an Australian production, it stood to reason that Sanctum would retain an Australian composer, and Victorian David Hirschfelder was tapped for the assignment. For many American listeners, Hirschfelder was probably most notable for his twin Oscar-nominated scores in the 1990s, 1996’s Shine and 1998’s Elizabeth. With that track record, few would have thought him capable of large-scale action/fantasy scoring, but with the back-to-back pairing of Legend of the Guardians and Sanctum, he thoroughly proved his credentials in that area with vivid and complex writing for a full orchestra and choir.
Sanctum‘s greatest asset is its sweeping thematic richness. The two main building blocks are introduced early: a throaty, mournful native New Guinean singer in “A Sacred Place” and a bold, adventurous march for the cave explorers which debuts in “Espiritu Esa Ala.” Both are deeply integrated into the following tracks, with the “Sacred Place” vocals often accompanying moments of despair and death while parts of “Espiritu Esa Ala” crop up in moments of hope and beauty. Smaller motifs are present throughout, such as the grinding electric guitars representing peril (the score’s only real departure from acoustic instruments and the human voice).
If the album has a flaw, it’s that the boldest thematic highlights are at the beginning and end of Varese Sarabande’s generous 70-minute album, with a rather lengthy middle section that only uses fragments of the “Sacred Place” and “Espiritu” themes as accents. As the film moved on to darker territory of death, hopelessness, and betrayal, the “Espiritu” theme largely disappears, replaced with guitar-led suspense/action material, until returning triumphantly for the finale and end credits suite. This causes the listening experience to sag somewhat in the middle, and listeners may be tempted to fashion their own album cut which focuses more on the score’s thematic strengths.
Still, as a whole Hirschfelder’s Sanctum is very pleasing, especially in an age of cookie-cutter action/adventure scores; its overachieving score earns a solid recommendation as a soon-to-be hidden gem of 2011 in film music. Sadly, Hirschfelder’s involvement with Sanctum and Legend of the Guardians did not lead to further assignments along similar lines; his scores throughout the 2010s have been for relatively minor films, and indeed none of them would even see a CD release until 2014’s The Railway Man.