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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » Sahara (HD DVD)
Sahara (HD DVD)
Paramount // PG-13 // July 25, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 29, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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With the hundreds upon hundreds of movies Paramount has at its fingertips, I'm not sure why they dug out two summer action-adventure flicks about globetrotting treasure hunters for their first wave of HD DVDs, but...hey, at least it's not Tomb Raider II.

Based on the novel by Clive Cussler, Sahara stars Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, a two-fisted pulp hero with an obsession for a long lost Confederate warship he's convinced is buried under the desert sands of Africa. While puttering around the Dark Continent on another assignment, Dick and his longtime sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) get the nod to slink away and investigate a recently discovered lead on the Texas. Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz) is on a search of her own in Mali, seeking out the source of a devastating plague before it has a chance to spread any further, and eventually their tales intertwine, pitting 'em against an oppressive warlord and a sleazy French industrialist. 'Course, that's all just an excuse to string together action setpieces like an explosive high-speed boat chase and a battle royale with a Civil War-era cannon against a chopper's armor-piercing rounds.

Sahara is one of those movies where if I were pressed to say if I liked it or not, I'd eventually give it a half-hearted thumbs-up, but I can't write a full sentence saying anything positive without countering it with a "...but..." afterwards. F'r instance, I thought the title sequence -- an extended stroll through a room in Admiral Sandecker's ship -- was the perfect introduction, filling the uninitiated in on who these characters are without a syllable of awkward exposition. The downside...? That silent stretch is the sum total of characterization in the movie. I dug the fact that the action in Sahara is a throwback to a '40s serial adventure -- men, boats, guns, camels, trains, exotic locales...y'know -- and that the movie wasn't littered with Saturday morning CGI beasties or twelve story robots. The action's dragged down by an outbreak subplot that should've either been beefed up or ditched entirely. A couple of early scenes revolving around the plague are unsettling and effective, but it's quickly shoved far enough in the background that it generally feels more like a distraction than an integral part of the story. As someone who's unfamiliar with the original Cussler novels, I didn't see a lot of "I routinely make the world safe for mankind" in Dirk, and his sudden shift in that direction after being nothing but Thrill-a-Minute Treasure Guy seemed to come out of nowhere. Maybe I just prefer my action heroes a little more reluctant. The soundtrack is peppered with a bunch of overly familiar '70s rock songs, but almost all of 'em are awkwardly shoehorned in and don't flow with the movie at all.

The uninspired casting doesn't help either. Matthew McConaughey is a likeable enough guy and has the washboard abs to look the part, although he just doesn't exude the charisma a first-rate action hero ought to have. He does alright, but his Dirk Pitt seems like just another character in just another movie, not someone iconic and enduring enough to sell tens of millions of books. Both McConaughey and Penelope Cruz must be established well enough as actors to not have to read for their parts; it's hard to imagine a Paramount exec giving them the thumbs-up after seeing a screen test of the two of 'em together. Their scenes are devoid of anything resembling chemistry, and the role really doesn't require Cruz to do much more than periodically remind people that she's a doctor until the very end. There's a reason professional wacky sidekick Steve Zahn keeps getting roped in to play this sort of part over and over again, and even though it's kinda more of the same here, his character is one of the few that actually has a personality.

Sahara tries to dial back the summer blockbuster to Indiana Jones' brand of high adventure, but it's unevenly paced, the action sequences are competent and well-staged but not the adrenaline rush they should've been, and viewers should probably stretch for a few minutes before popping in the disc 'cause of all the disbelief they'll need to suspend for the next couple of hours. I really do respect what Paramount and director Breck Eisner were trying to accomplish, but the end result is merely okay, and who wants to shell out twenty five bucks for "okay"?

Video: If nothing else, Sahara is a spectacular calling card for cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. The 2.40:1 high definition video looks amazing, and a lot of that comes courtesy of McGarvey's photography. The palette is beautifully saturated, often cast in a stylized golden glow that's a perfect fit for the movie's tone and setting, and the final scene on a beach with the most stunningly rendered water I've seen in high definition is demo material. There are times when the bright, exaggerated colors seem to drain away just a bit of the fine detail, but the image remains razor sharp and crisply defined throughout. I couldn't spot a single flaw -- no ringing around edges, no digital artifacts, and not a speck in the source. Home theater nuts who can't stomach the presence of film grain should take note than there's none to be found here. A very strong first showing from Paramount.

Audio: Hey, it's a summer adventure flick, and although the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio can be fairly timid in the more dialogue-heavy stretches, it takes full advantage of all six channels during the bombastic action sequences. The opening battle as the Texas is being bombarded with cannon fire is especially impressive, coaxing some slugged-in-the-gut low frequencies from my subwoofer while still sounding tight and punchy. The film's dialogue emerges without any concerns, and both the original score and the K-Tel '70s arena rock soundtrack maintain a strong presence throughout. Like Paramount's other HD DVDs, a DTS track is also offered along with a couple of Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 dubs and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: The only high definition extra is a 1080p theatrical trailer, presented at 1.78:1 rather than at the movie's original aspect ratio. The other extras have been lifted from last summer's DVD and the Best Buy bonus disc, and there are a bunch of 'em.

Director Breck Eisner pops up on two commentary tracks. The first is a solo run through Sahara, and it's primarily a technical chat. There aren't any of the usual tales o' zaniness on the set, and he rarely delves into the story. Eisner is more likely to comment on what was running through his mind at a particular moment than his movie's characters, and the commentary is heavy on details about the visuals, especially sets, locations, and where computer-generated effects were used. He's personable enough that even though it is fairly technical, the track doesn't seem dry or dull, and Eisner makes it a point to explain some of the terminology he's using for laymen instead of spouting off an endless stream of jargon. The second commentary pairs Eisner with star-slash-executive producer Matthew McConaughey, and it focuses a bit more on the story and McConaughey's approach to the character. The tone's lighter and probably more accessible to people who aren't armchair filmmakers, but so much information was retread from the first commentary that I quickly lost interest.

The fifteen minute featurette "Across the Sands of Sahara" gives a solid overview of production with an emphasis on McConaughey's dogged pursuit of the role of Dirk Pitt and the rest of the casting process. It's a better than average making-of, veering away from the fluffy promotional stuff for the most part. The twenty minute "Visualizing Sahara" is even better. It's easy to shrug off Eisner's gig as pure nepotism -- his father is, after all, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, not to mention the former head honcho of Paramount -- but it's clear that he invested a great deal of time, thought, and energy into crafting Sahara, even if it's not a resounding success. This featurette runs through Eisner's vision of the film and many of his key decisions throughout pre-production, moving onto the distinctive photography of the desert scenes, the colossal effort of costume design, how the scale of the sprawling solar plant was implemented, and creating a Texas set that'd function both in the water during the Civil War and buried under tons of sand in Africa. My favorite action sequence, the constantly-one-upping-itself boat chase, also gets a good bit of attention. My pick for the best extra on this disc.

The cast and crew wrap film is nine minutes and change of sappy music and "hey, remember when...?" footage snapped during production. I'm sure it causes gobs of great memories to flood back if you worked on Sahara, but otherwise, it's kind of like watching a total stranger's home movies. Four deleted scenes run five minutes in total and include optional commentary with Eisner and McConaughey. The first two flesh out the backstory behind the battered plane that Dirk and Al stumble upon in the desert, and the other two are inessential and had to be yanked for pacing.

The HD DVD also includes a five minute behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the camel chase. This clip ditches the usual talking heads explanations I'm used to from a making-of featurette, instead opting for more of a fly-on-the-wall approach that's much, much more effective. The camel chase is also presented in animatic form, along with an animatic of the opening sequence with the assault on the Confederate ship. Finally, there are storyboard comparisons for three scenes: the shootout at the tainted well, Dirk's beachfront derring-do with Eva, and the big climactic revelation.

Conclusion: Sahara is an Applebee's adventure flick; sure, I guess I'd say I liked it, but it's not something I'm likely to rave about or even remember three days later. Still, sometimes a base hit is all you need, and even though Sahara isn't the start of an Indy-flavored franchise as Paramount had hoped it would be, this is exactly the sort of movie that's meant to fill a lazy Sunday afternoon. Rent It.

Standard image disclaimer: the pictures scattered around this review were lifted from the official movie site and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of this HD DVD. Actually, forget the "necessarily" 'cause the Sahara website has folds and fake wear on its pictures, and the movie's just a movie. Sorry.
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