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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Sahara (Blu-ray)
Sahara (Blu-ray)
Paramount // PG-13 // October 24, 2006 // Region A
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted December 1, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
When a major crisis looms and it's up to Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn to save the world, it's time to say your prayers and make peace with the Almighty. If the fate of the planet is ever left in the hands of these two buffoons, we're all in some serious trouble. After the villain in Sahara revealed his diabolical plan, I expected the heroes to thwart him by lighting up some reefers and playing bongos in the nude until he relented and turned himself in to the authorities. To be honest, that probably wouldn't have been much dumber than what we have here.

As far as would-be summer action blockbusters go, Sahara is one of the dopiest in recent years, and that's saying quite a lot. Loosely based on the airport paperback bestseller by Clive Cussler (so loosely that the author sued the studio, forcing major reshoots), McConaughey stars as shirtless adventurer Dirk Pitt, sort of a low-rent Indiana Jones traveling the seas in search of sunken ships and assorted other aquatic treasures. The character is one of Cussler's staples featured in a string of novels. In this one, at least as adapted by Hollywood, Dirk is on the hunt for a Civil War ironclad battleship that was last seen cruising up the James River from Richmond, Virginia in 1865. Naturally, the first place Pitt thinks to look is in the middle of the North African desert. OK, whatever. He has a cockamamie theory to explain this, but it's never fully developed and I doubt anyone cares.

So now that we've established that our hero is a moron, let's introduce a second, seemingly unrelated storyline in which a W.H.O. doctor played by supposedly sexy Spanish starlet Penelope Cruz (sorry, I've never understood the appeal) is investigating the outbreak of a mysterious plague spreading through Africa. The good doctor's life is threatened after asking too many questions, but fortunately Pitt just happened to be tanning nearby and races in to rescue her. Gosh, that was lucky. It turns out that the source of the illness is an industrial polluter who's been leaking toxic waste into an underground water supply. As it's explained to us based on no evidence whatsoever, the poisons are about to hit the Atlantic Ocean at any minute, and once there will set off a chain reaction that will wipe out all life on the planet within a week! Whoa, man, that would like totally suck.

Obviously, the only way to stop this from happening must involve Pitt having a dramatic fistfight on top of a solar power plant while his idiot buddy (Zahn) defuses a bomb set to blow them all to Kingdom Come. If you were wondering how that old battleship plays into this story, you won't be too surprised to hear that it will make a dramatic reappearance just when our heroes are backed into a desperate corner, and of course its cannons will still be in perfect operating condition despite being buried in the sand for 150 years.

The movie was directed by Breck Eisner, son of Disney CEO Michael. Gee, I wonder how he got the job? Surprisingly, Eisner is smart enough to keep the tone breezy and lightweight for most of the runtime, as if he knows exactly how dumb the whole enterprise is and just wants to play it all for a laugh. The picture has many exotic African locations, much pretty photography, some efficient (if mostly idiotic) action scenes, and amusing comic relief from Zahn and the underused Rainn Wilson. William H. Macy also cashes a paycheck in a supporting role as Dirk's grumpy boss, and it's always nice to see him on screen no matter how bad the movie. The plot is ridiculous beyond belief and sadly starts to take itself way too seriously in the second half, throwing away whatever moderate watchability the movie had until that point. Sahara is basically a bloated, stupid mess. The $130 million production was a box office dud, a fate not undeserved.

The Blu-ray Disc:
Sahara debuts on the Blu-ray format courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The studio previously released the title on HD DVD in July of this year.

Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

Video:
The Sahara Blu-ray is encoded in High Definition 1080p format using MPEG2 compression on a single-layer 25 gb disc. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.

This is a terrific transfer, one of the best available on Blu-ray so far. The picture is bright and sharp, with great colors and rich black levels. A recent big-budget production, the source elements are spotlessly clean and have very little film grain. Detail and texture are well-rendered, though fine object detail occasionally looks a slight bit filtered. Some very minor edge enhancement ringing is present in a few scenes, but it's not severe enough to be a serious distraction. The disc looks great and will make an excellent High Definition show-off piece.

The Sahara Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.

Audio:
The movie's soundtrack is provided in standard Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 formats. It's a pretty typical bombastic action movie mix with ridiculous amounts of booming bass, especially during the opening prologue's volleys of cannon fire. Dialogue is always clear, sound effects are sharp, and the musical score is presented with a nice sense of breadth across the front soundstage. Surround use is not as aggressive as I expected for this sort of movie, however. When they're active, the back channels seem muted in volume compared to the front. That small caveat aside, this is a nice-sounding disc. I compared the Dolby and DTS tracks and found them largely similar, with perhaps a small edge in fidelity toward the DTS.

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD 5.1.

Extras:
The disc automatically opens with a lengthy Blu-ray promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. Almost all of the supplements from the DVD edition have been carried over, plus a couple of new ones exclusive to the High-Def formats. All features are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression, except the trailer which is encoded in High Definition.

Taken from the DVD are:

  • Audio Commentary by Breck Eisner - The director is a pretty good speaker and sounds like a smart guy. How does he not realize how bad his movie is? That's a question you won't find answered here. The track is mostly technical in nature, explaining how various elaborate action scenes were accomplished.
  • Audio Commentary by Breck Eisner and Matthew McConaughey - The director returns for another commentary, this time joined by his star and Executive Producer. The men have a good rapport and surprisingly McConaughey doesn't come across as too much of a dumbass. The focus of this track is on story and character.
  • Across the Sands of Sahara (15 min.) – A fluffy EPK making-of piece that talks a little about the production difficulties with heat, sandstorms, rain, and locusts. McConaughey explains how he lobbied for the role. It's amazing how seriously everyone took such a dumb movie.
  • Visualizing Sahara (20 min.) – A pleasantly thorough overview of the movie's visual design. Covered topics include: storyboards, pre-vis planning, production design, photography (the director even mentions his choice of aspect ratio), costumes, sets, and visual effects.
  • Cast & Crew Wrap Film (10 min.) – I'm not exactly sure what this assemblage of random behind-the-scenes footage was meant to be. I guess it may have been entertaining for the crew to relive their experiences during the wrap party, but a casual viewer is going to have no idea what the point of this is.
  • Deleted Scenes (5 min.) – Four scenes are offered with optional commentary by Eisner and McConaughey. The footage actually isn't bad, but didn't fit in the movie and wouldn't have improved it anyway.
New to the High-Def discs are:
  • Camel Chase (5 min.) – A behind-the-scenes look at the filming of one action scene, including the problems faced due to bad weather.
  • Animatics (9 min.) – Animated storyboards are presented for two scenes.
  • Storyboard Comparisons (6 min.) – A before-and-after look at three scenes.
  • Theatrical Trailer - The trailer is presented in High-Def but cropped to 16:9. It's not a particularly good ad, but then look at the product it had to sell.
Final Thoughts:
Sahara is, in essence, the embodiment of everything wrong with modern Hollywood. Big, loud, and stupid, the movie has little to recommend unless you set your standards extraordinarily low. The Blu-ray does have terrific High Definition imagery, however. Stick with a rental on this one.

Related Articles:
Dazed and Confused (HD DVD) - Matthew McConaughey
U-571 (HD DVD) - McConaughey again
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution – DVDTalk's HD Column
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