The Real Story: The Cave Expedition That Inspired ‘Sanctum’

Posted on February 4, 2011 at 8:00 am

nullarbor.jpg“Sanctum” begins, “Inspired by a true story.” That story was the 1988 Nullarbor cave expedition that had 13 people trapped underground. Unlike the high-tech equipment used by the characters in the film, the Nullarbor cave-divers trapped 80 metres underground had to make do with radio communications. They had gone into the cave to make a documentary and were trapped by a rock slide. Fifteen explorers were trapped for two days, including Andrew Wright, a producer of “Sanctum” and a documentary about the incident called “Nullarbor Dreaming.” Fortunately, the real-life explorers had a better outcome than the movie’s characters.

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The Real Story

82 Replies to “The Real Story: The Cave Expedition That Inspired ‘Sanctum’”

  1. Awesome movie! Kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. I am also a diver and climber so I was pleased to find accuracy in the movie. I definitely recommend it to others.

  2. did not like this movie, what was it about, the real story had nothing to do with the movie. It SUCKED

  3. Its an awsome movie.Really through the whole movie I was stucked to my seat , sitting motionless… Movie SANCTUM is really a must-watch movie….

  4. I dont know whts wrong with ann, I think he might went for the movie by seeing the tag sanctum 3D (A). It is really an awesome Movie. All who are reading to this should watch!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. they should fire all of the actors, and better yet the producers for saying it is based on a true story. This movie had nothing to do with the actual story its based on aside from the concept of being trapped in a cave

  6. Hi, James! They use the all-purpose term “inspired by a true story,” which means that they change about 90% of what happened. I’d much rather see a movie about the real incident.

  7. Well maybe the true story was not quite same, but the movie sure was amazing… Yeah they should have made it more real, but this way you are always thinking about the boy who was left alone after the whole journy… Yeah well they did say based on true story they didn’t say true story.

  8. I was a great movie! I was holding my husbands hand so tight my fingers went numb. I really thought I was right there with them!

  9. All the reviews said it was a bad movie. We thought they were wrong wrong wrong ( as usual)> Very intense, great flick.
    Of course I had to look up the true story it was ‘based’ on, and that probably wouldnt of made as good of a movie…..

  10. there is only one word to describe this movie, ghastly. Or maybe awful. I wish I could get my money back and go see anything else!

  11. Pam i think your ghastly choice of words here on this thread is an outrage!! maybe you should open your eyes are realize that this was a true story, people died. Maybe you should get your money back, use that money to try and buy your way into heaven with the angels. That is the only way you are going in. From your comment above i see you allready have your one way ticket to hell baby!

  12. Pam, I am sorry you did not like the film; as you can see, I was not a fan either. Tim, we try to keep this a safe place for people to express their views without fear of being insulted. And if you will check out my post on the real story you will see that thankfully in real life no one on the expedition that inspired this movie died.

  13. I am just wondering about one small detail… in the movie, after they go back in the cave they find carl with the body of a woman… my girlfriend says it’s Victoria’s body but since Josh’s father says ” Thank you Judes” …I’m not so sure who it was socan you help me?

  14. I just saw the movie. The dead woman in the cave with Carl was wearing a red jumpsuit, the sameone that Victoria was wearing when she fell into the churning water. Victoria took Jude’s rebreather to get out of the cave… They must have fixed the hose before the cave flooded.

  15. I loved the movie. The photography was wonderful. I saw it with my son on Saturday and am still thinking of the movie. Keep it up James Cameron!

  16. NO ONE DIED!!!! It was BASED on a true story, NOT ACTUAL EVENTS, the only thing that was actual is that the cave collapsed. WOW, do you people believe everything you see on tv?

  17. Thanks, Missy. I’ve edited your comments to comply with the rules of this site, which prohibit insults to other posters. But I appreciate your setting the record straight.

  18. I recall an article about a search in a Mexican cave system for its link to the sea.1 diver died and they had to leave the body and continue.
    Doesn’t sound like the Nullabar incident.

    1. Really? That seems a rather unnecessarily ugly overstatement. I believe the term “based on” makes it clear that it is not factual.

  19. I disagree. “based” means that the narrative follows the basic unfolding of the real events, or at least has a substantial connection with the real event on a number of material points. Instead, a narrative that shares with the real event only the fact that a bunch of spelunkers had their return route barred, with everything else been different, can at most be said to be “inspired” by the real event. But that word would of course not sound quite as engaging. Sad to say, I encountered this type of artfully misleading marketing over and over while traveling Down Under for a few months.

    1. I agree that “inspired by” would be more appropriate here given that they changed the characters, purpose, decade, and outcome. But I do not think it is appropriate for you to make this into an attack on an entire country. Many film-makers in many places abuse the line between “based on” and “inspired by” and you attribution of what is a fairly minor infraction to an entire nation is offensive.

  20. I really liked the movie! it made me think a lot about life. I’m really glad to be alive, on top of the earth and free rather then trapped and dead inside the earth. You never know what could happen to you.

  21. I just watched Sanctum tnite, n I think it’s been a while since I saw a good movie with a strong character, and that Sanctum had. At the start of the movie, it said ‘ Inspired by a true story’
    I watched it in Singapore, maybe They changed from ‘Based’ to ‘Inspired’ which seems more appropriate..
    It’s a must watch..

  22. I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!!!!! If I could, I would watch it over and over again! The 3D part made it sooo much better! Im glad no one actually died!

  23. A really good moviekept me awake even after very hard working day. Only one thing: “based on true story”????? I got question to James Cameron is AVATAR also based on true story or is it documentry? 😉

    Movie: 10/10

  24. I thought it was awsome however enjoy the outdoors maybe thats why I love it !!!Also This Film is inspired by a True Story lol

  25. the movie inspired me a lot and it move to realization that is too difficult to handle situation like the sanctum the movie. Oh! the movie was great!

  26. Was a gud movie. Veri nice shots of underground cave pools. A bit disappointed at finding out dat tru story events were no where near da movie storyline but its worth watching

  27. This film is awesome. The caves were beautiful and dangerous at the same time. I really enjoyed the perspective we had on human nature and the different relations and reactions in a distress situation/environement. Sometimes, I just feel like behing down there alone in the caves with nothing to get out alive, but sometimes I feel like breathing the whole el nino stream of air, welcome to the life on earth as a human!;)

    In the caves, my light is my dauther, who is(are) your light(s)? peace <3

    (sry for mistakes, english is not my mother language)

  28. I just watched the movie for the first time and thought it was good people shouldn’t get so caught up in the whole “based on a true story” “inspired by…” Those terms just means that the real events laid the foundation for a more dramatic telling of the story unless its called a documentary then chances are the only thing “real” of factual is the main point to the story which in this case was cave divers got stuck in a cave the rest is up to whoevers imagination so either enjoy it for what it is a good movie or complain about what it isn’t a documentary.

  29. Ok, first off, I have to thank James Cameron and the team he has contracted for this movie. It was great. A heart pounding and captivating psychological thriller. And the fact that they used the same camera equipment as in Avatar probably was the optimizer at play. James Cameron’s team is always fitted with the best set architects and the cream of the crop CGI designers. Now, I’m sure, although this obviously was more so a work of fiction than of a true story, something of that nature probably has occurred in the past and has a high possibility of occurring in the future. I don’t know if any of you are cavers, but I am and it can be a very exciting, however, dangerous experience. The documentary crew which this movie was inspired from was lucky to be all kicking and accounted for when they were rescued, because when your stuck in a crevace 80 meters underground, your competing with something so much bigger then you. You have to worry about air, conserving food and water, how your going see for the next few days, and keeping everyone safe and in line. Death is a very real possibility and most of the time its only one step in the wrong direction that’ll do it. So, in light of the fact that I just viewed several comments that hate at this movie just because its fictional, let me ask you this… what the fuck did you expect? Its a James Cameron film… if you want the real thing, go watch the rocky mountain man documentary. It’ll make you feel sorry for ever wanting to see real people dying in caves. If you could imagine for a second the pain of having an 8 ton rock smash your pelvis and then being stuck there for weeks being finger fed by a handful of friends who just happened to realize where you were after a week, and then suddenly being cut off from that last sliver of hope by another unforgiving rock slide and starving to death, in the dark, alone… you probably wouldn’t be disappointed now would you?

  30. Just recently finished watching this movie from a DVD. The first thing i do when the movie finished, i jump into my laptop and google about this “true event”. Its kinda bump(relieve at the same time) to know about what exactly happen because when the movie was playing, i kept thinking to myself. How could a person go through all of this pain. But overall the movie was awesome. Every detail, just amazing. Good work James Cameron. And thank you Neill for providing us with this article. Btw, this movie that I watched stated that it was “inspired by true event”. Great job overall. Thanks.

  31. I rented this movie and originally thought it was a true story. Once it was over the Bonus section had a heading about the Real Story. I clicked on it, wanting to know if the two who left at the beginning made it out, but it said something like ‘This film is for rental purposes and contains the feature film only. Purchase a copy to enjoy the bonus features.’ What?! Or (light bulb), I thought to myself “Google it”. So here I am one hour later, I found out it is not a true story and got to read all these comments; some great and some not so great. All-in-all I appreciate this listing for being informative. My opinion on the movie: It is an emotional roller coaster but superbly made film. It leaves you reflecting on life, how fragile it is and really does make you feel like you are there. The end, I had the same sort of feeling with Black Hawk Down. Awe, for what they went through and a sadness so deep you just have to pause… Thank goodness this was not true!

    1. Thanks, Theresa — like you, I always want to know more about the real story, so I am glad to provide that information here for others who are interested. I liked your comments on the film very much.

  32. the movie was very good and we would recommend it. it had us asking questions and truly engaged during the movie. i don’t care if it was inspired by a true event or not. the movie was entertaining and worth seeing. there were good lessons to take away from the movie as well. maybe lessons that will one day help anyone that finds themselves in a hopeless situation.

  33. The idea being “based on a true story” = the events LEADING to the movie are accurate. The basis for the movies motives are accurate. Or the end result (however achieved) reflects reality. Sanctum fails on every account. Andrew Wight should be ashamed and sued by the other survivors he’s obviously kind of a douche bag.

    All that being said. Damn enjoyable movie – the association they claim for its basis is like saying “based on Wednesday 4th of June 1986” because they heard a story about a thing that reminded them of an idea that they couldn’t remember when they came up with.

    To sum it up. Go $#%& yourself Andrew Wight- you should have died down there(or at least sustained debilitating physical or mental injuries you snake in the grass you). Annnnnd Nicely done Alister Grierson along with John Garvin. Andrew Wight your part of “writing” the script was no doubt akin to Ben Affleck’s contributions to Good Will Hunting. You didn’t make enough money on your shitty pseudo accurate documentary – keep hunting the money ya dick.

  34. The story was completely entertaining; the cinematography and special effects were terrific but the acting and dialogue was…well, lame. I can understand why it was panned by the critics. If it weren’t for the former attributes, this movie might have been unwatchable. I thought James Cameron was controlling and a perfectionist? Which makes me wonder why he allowed the selection of those actors and that screenplay.

    It’s unbelievable and frankly scary that anyone could say that Andrew Wight “should have died down there” in the real incident – especially for just making a movie (that could have been better). It almost sounds like you have a personal issue with him Kyle.

  35. Holla Folks
    Hmm, I have not seen the flick but have been informed by many cavers that the director had an extremely good imagination and the effects and situations are close and/or true to form. This makes the idea of seeing it tantalizing. It’s not often that our world gets the highlights, lol… Looking forward to a viewing and thanks for all the public insight.

    NSS# 59538
    Blue Grass Grotto

    1. Thanks, Jean! I’ve spent some time in caves, and recommend “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” not scary but a great use of 3D to depict the contours of the Chauvet cave and its mesmerizing artwork.

  36. omg this movie had me crying when george knew it was time for him to go and i hate carl why would he take the last breathing thing then frank kept him alive and hes just gonna kill frank in front of his son that a mess.and i was confused when josh sucked the walls then i understood why i really cried when josh had to kill his dad :'(

  37. First of all I enjoyed the movie.. I feel like I was able to appreciate the beauty and emotion the people responsible for the movie wanted to convey. I beleive that this story is loosely based on a particular set of event, that it incorporates many realistic possabilities and that it shows some real dangers of cave diving. Second of all, this is my opinion. I do not expect every movie goer to get out of the film what I did, nor to appreciate the story, photography or loss of life depicted. Everyone else will take something different from the film based on there unique feelings and emotions-good or bad. Third, After many years watching television, movies and reading books-I have learned that just about every story ever told based on, inspired by or even relating to events real or imagined changes with the re-telling. Sometimes for better sometimes for worse. Hollywood is just as guilty (if you choose that definition) as any other movie producing area of changing one small simple story into a mind captivating, emotionally charged block buster movie. Fourth, to Nell (the moderator) great job trying to keep the extremists in check-that’s got to be a difficult task. And finally – great movie worth seeing, I hope you can get out of it what I did. An amazing story wraught with intrigue, emotion and some tough life lessons.

    1. Many thanks for this very thoughtful and well-expressed comment, tunneldweller! Absolutely right and much appreciated.

  38. I watched it last night because there was nothing else on. I found it to be quite entertaining and at the same time, interesting from a social experiment perspective. What would you truly be willing to do to survive in a seemingly impossible situation. I bet anyone would learn a lot about themselves…good and bad!!

  39. I thought it was a good movie – Just hated that they had to include SO much profanity!! Really, is all that necessary??

  40. I was bothered by the complete lack of concern for the characters lives in the movie. More so how they treated each other in the face of possible death..granted its just a movie, but it would have been much more entertaining and suspenseful if i actually gave a sh*t about the characters. By the end of the movie i was hoping they’d all die. Their was little to no character development except for the stereotypical idiot father and neglected son bit….i liked some of the cave scenes, but overall I didnt like this movie.

    1. Thanks, DW. I think you have identified the reason the movie was not a bigger box office success.

  41. The movie was good but I feel like I have been lied to. The producers of the movie said it was based on true events, I expected to see what really happened, not what someone says could have happened in order to make a buck.

    1. Sorry you feel that way, S. I investigated the real story so I could provide this information to the many interested viewers. But you should never assume that a “based on a true story” movie is the same thing as a documentary.

  42. Well, I must say the movie was captivating and was well done. Fortunately the movie wasn’t anyway close to being true, and fortunately I did not learn that this film was so called “inspired by a true story” before renting it. What hyperbole!!! That’s like saying Jaws was inspired by a true story because a shark bit someone. The producers of this film should have no credibility with their audience. They simply stated this to con people into seeing it and they didn’t have too. I’ll take whatever James Cameron and Andrew Wright say in the future with a grain of salt!

  43. This movie is not for everyone. even for me it was a exciting shocker i should never judge a movie buy its cover ha it was adventurous, yes but i did not 100% Even expect wat would happen to those people. I ended up likeing it yet i could not watch it agian i was jumping around and could not sit down by the events woo! for those who love rollercoasters and crazy gory amazing action films this is a must see. Ill stick to Bambi By for now.

  44. i just watched sanctum and to hear that 15 people survived apposed to the son of “andrew Wright” in the movie. therefore, i think you have no right to put the title ‘based on a true story’ especially if they had radio signal and much different aquatic equiptment. I don’t like tragedies, but i don’t like being lied to either.

    1. Thanks, Mr. Novak. The movie did not purport to be an accurate re-telling, which is why it said it was “inspired by” rather than “based on” a true story.

  45. The movie was owesome,The producers of this film should have no credibility with their audience. They simply stated this to con people into seeing it and they didn’t have too. I’ll take whatever James Cameron and Andrew Wright say in the future with a grain of salt!

    1. Well, you should take whatever anyone who is trying to sell you something says with a grain of salt Ankit. But be aware that “inspired by” is not the same as “based on,” which is not the same as a documentary, which is not the same as real life. Would you not have watched the movie if you thought it was a purely fictional story?

  46. First thing I have to say is that anyone who expects hollywood to stick to the facts of a true story is sadly mistaken. James Cameron is in the business of making movies to get money. If he were to have made a documentary of the true story, he wouldn’t have made as much money. Sadly, we see movies like this to see people die, and get hurt, and have other turmoils to deal with. That said, the movie did say “inspired by”, and in case you all didn’t know The Hangover was inspired by a true story. A producer had been to a bachelor party, woke up the next day with no recollection of what happend, and a 30,000 dollar bill for the destruction of a strip joint. That’s not what happened in the movie though, right? Inspired by means “hey this story happened in real life, and I want to make a movie that resembles this story”. Some cavers got trapped, and had to fight their way out of a cave system to survive. Sounds like “Sanctum”. Inspired by. As a climber, caver, diver, and many other ways of enjoying nature and what the earth has for us to explore, this movie was amazing. Its a movie. I called who was going to die first, second, third, fourth, and who was going to survive. And I did it as soon as I saw who was trapped. I’m not psychic, I just understand how movies are made. Wait, that’s right! It’s a movie! A movie that was INSPIRED by something that happened in reality. This MOVIE was amazing, and had a lot of accuracy in a lot of ways. A very well made MOVIE. Fortunately for the people that inspired this MOVIE, no one died. Fortunately for hollywood, and James Cameron, we like stories with less than ideal endings. I give this movie a five star rating. And it is definitely one of the next movies I will be adding to my collection of movies. For those of you who liked it, check it out in 3d, it was spectacular. For those of you who want to bash it and criticize it for not being exactly what happened because it was inspired by a story, check out NatGeo. That will probably be more up your ally, they stick more to the true story.

  47. For Pete’s sake!!! Weren’t we all made with free will and the right to an opinion? That doesn’t mean anyone has the right to attack someone else because they don’t agree with you. “Inspired by” can mean many things. Unless it’s a documentary, it is entertainment. Deceptive marketing doesn’t even apply here eyeofvancouver. I’d think twice before insulting someone’s homeland because there are many stereo types to hang around any country’s neck including Canada’s. There isn’t anything deceptive about the words “inspired by”. I’m a song writer. Many events inpire the things I write and sing about and all of it from real-life. That doesn’t mean I’m singing a news report. Sanctum was a well written piece of entertainment that stays with you and makes you glad that you are alive. It is about the will to survive. The consequences of pride and stupidity and finding ones true character in a crisis situation no matter what that may be. It’s a TEN in my book!!!!

  48. I was actually quite disturbed by the final scenes of the movie. Thanks, NM, for the info; I was hoping to learn a little about the back story. I agree with you about the semantics of “inspired by”, “based on”, etc. If one of the producer’s real experiences inspired him to write about it/create a movie in which he tried to recreate the intensity of the emotions that one confronts in life and death situations, then he has all of the creative license that he needs. In my opinion (and I realize that not everyone agrees), this makes the movie fascinating.

    On another note, I’m very happy that I found this website. I’m printing the comments for my sophomore classes to see how much more valid comments seem when proper grammar and spelling are used.

  49. Sanctum is fantastic. I am getting ready to watch it a second time. Irrespective of whether it is “based” “inspired” on true events or not, the movie is well worth watching and the imagery amazing. The story is great and certainly not improbable and I was captivated the entire time. Thank you for a GREAT movie x

  50. Read all above and fully agree with the term “inspired” as reflecting well the Sanctum movie. There was a reality about the pictured scenes, some shot in real underwater caves in Mt.Gambier.

    To add more reality, what about the stunt Agnes Milowka seen drowning as Judes character, she died just few days after premiere in similar circumstances, in Mt.Gambier caves.

    1. Yes, it is a sad loss, Corasko. In memory, Agnes Milowka Memorial Environmental Science Award has been established by Mummu Media for underprivileged schools in the area of science, marine studies or exploration.

  51. Just watched this movie and really enjoyed it. Had to find out the real story just to make sure it wasnt as bad as the movie but thankfully no one died so that made me feel better. Well done Nell on keeping this chat clean! So many times you read comments like this and it ends up in a slanging match.

  52. Really good movie for those who are alright with watching complete crap. The true story was enough to make a movie for, but, since the producer was one of the ppl who were trapped he figured he could make an arm and a leg filming absolute nonsense. Its a shame really.

  53. this true story was very wonderful.!!!! and it was so so great. when it is movie. ! and i said wow.!!!!!!!! when i saw the cave, and the survivor. good job.! i love it very much. :))

  54. Esa’ala Cave…..Living in Papua New Guinea all my life but never been around Papua New Guinea because of the dangers, someday i’ll be exploring the cave myself.

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