From the trailers, 2005's Sahara looked like a strange sort of hybrid between Indiana Jones and National Treasure. With an all-star cast of actors like William H. Macy, PenÚlope Cruz, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn placed in roles ripe for an "epic" adventure movie, you'd think all the pieces would come together. While the movie is highly entertaining at parts it never really elevates beyond silly and borderline dumb summer popcorn fare.
I found myself laughing and thinking "hey, that was cool!" but in between the bits of action Sahara lost me and bored me to the verge of tears. The pacing is relatively erratic with this film and often times the plot will lose its focus as its characters miraculously fumble their way around. Whereas a historical type adventure flick like National Treasure tried to take itself seriously, Sahara does not and in a sense it often feels like a parody of itself.
Based on a book by Clive Cussler, Sahara focuses on a guy named Dirk Pitt (McConaughey) who scours the world for lost treasures. He works for a privately funded organization called NUMA that excavates underwater treats and supplies them for the whole world to see. While conducting some work in Lagos Africa, Pitt comes across a rare coin from the civil war era and gets giddy like a school girl about a sunken ship. With a little bit of arm twisting he convinces his boss, Admiral Sandecker (Macy) to borrow his yacht and go hunting with his buddy Al (Zahn). Their objective is to find a 150 year old war ship from the civil war era that somehow found its way into the middle of the dessert. Don't ask.
While this is going on some members from the WHO (World Health Organization, not Roger Daltry's band) are investigating a plague that is killing Africans left and right. Amidst the death and disease, Dr. Eva Rojas (Cruz) still manages to wear enough makeup to look like she's going out for a night on the town. With little regard to common sense she walks around without a mask and touches things without gloves. At one point she even shimmies down a well that is believed to have had poisonous water in it, only putting the mask and gloves on once she hits bottom, but I digress.
The plague sub-plot soon overshadows the civil tugboats' and it leads our heroes to the head of corruption in the local government. If you can't tell by now the movie is over-the-top ridiculous and it only gets sillier as it goes. Kind of like how the main "bad guy" fortress is a solar power plant and how without a map, a compass or even asking for directions Dirk and Al find their way to a super secret hiding spot from the middle of the dessert.
There are even more preposterous such as the two wind surf through the dessert with the remnants of a crashed plane and perfectly timing a burning cigar to ignite gasoline. My personal favorite is a rather James Bond-ish scene where they manage to sneak on board a train and into the heart of the enemy compound without being seen until it's convenient for the plot. Don't worry; I'm not spoiling anything for you. Most of these scenes were trailer highlights and to be honest the movie is predictable (and unbelievable) from the moment it begins.
It's really hard to tell where Sahara went wrong. I mean, the acting is fine and there are some very entertaining performances here. Zahn does a great job as the wise-cracking sidekick and McConaughey plays a very charismatic role. Macy's character didn't do a lot other than smoke cigars and Cruz's character was utterly ridiculous. But I suppose every adventure film needs its token hot chick. I haven't read the book so I can't compare the screenplay to the original material, but I think a lot of the problem stems from director Breck Eisner's (son of Disney's Michael Eisner) inexperience with a film of this type.
Overall this is the type of movie you watch when you want to see something blow up without a lot of wishy washy plot getting in the way. For what it is it's a very enjoyable ride, but this style of adventure flick has been done better before.
Sahara is presented with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and offers some very good image quality. Although there is some minor edge enhancement and grain present in some scenes the overall look is very clean and sharp. The nice thing about adventure movies is that they usually take place in a wide variety of locations. In that regard Sahara offers everything from oceanic views to desserts and even bustling African towns. In each circumstance the colors appear natural and very vibrant.
There are a few audio selections in the set up menu for you to tinker with. The obvious choice here is the 5.1 Dolby Digital English track and for what it is it offers up a very good experience. There is plenty of directionality to the sound with a decent channel mix and nothing ever becomes muffled or distorted. Sometimes the balance between vocals and sound effects/music can be a little off kilter, but overall it's nothing to complain about. To round out the audio are a Dolby 2.0 option for English and French with optional English and Spanish subtitles. It's worth mentioning that I encountered some minor problems with the English subtitles while watching and several times during the course of the film they would become pixilated or not show up all together. I repeated this same effect on two different brands of DVD player.
While I was almost expecting a barebones release for Sahara, I was pleasantly surprised to see a decent helping of extra features on the disc.
Across the Sands of Sahara is a 15 minute behind the scenes documentary that is basically an industry fluff piece. The cast and crew talk each other up about how wonderful everyone is and why they are perfect for a role or whatnot. There are a couple of interesting and funny bits in it, but pretty much it's a self servicing feature. Also included is a cast and crew wrap film that is roughly 10 minutes of candid moments and outtakes. It's worth a watch, but nothing earth shattering or all together too interesting.
Another extra evolves around the visual look of Sahara. Everything from concept art to completion and even costuming are talking about here. There are some interesting technical aspects that are talked about from the decisions of filming to particular filters used on the cameras to create the illusion of heat. Clocking in at 20 minutes this feature packs a lot of information in and is worth taking a closer look at. Four deleted scenes are also included with optional commentary by Eisner and McConaughey. They are interesting to watch, but it's evident to see why they happened to find their way to the cutting room floor.
Rounding things out are a pair of commentaries. The first is just Eisner going at it solo and the second has Eisner and McConaughey talking about the film. Eisner's commentary is relatively boring after a while so the one that has the two of them talking is easily more enjoyable. There are quite a few references to technical aspects of the film, their experience while producing the movie and even a few jokes tossed in for good measure.
Sahara is one of those movies that you will either like because it's preposterous or hate it for the same reason. There are so many points where reality is put on the back burner and there is a lot of sit-back-and-watch-stuff-blow-up action to be had. This all equals a very good popcorn munching movie that makes a good rental but maybe not a strong purchase, unless you like fun adventure movies without much point. The DVD has some very good looking visuals and great sounding visuals, not to mention a decent amount of bonus material. Rent it