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SAHARA (PG-13) (2005)

Bristol Bay Productions, Paramount Pictures, Baldwin Entertainment

Official Site

Director: Breck Eisner

Producers: Stephanie Austin, Howard Baldwin, Karen Elise Baldwin

Written by: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, John C. Richards, James V. Hart; from the novel by Clive Cussler

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penélope Cruz, Lambert Wilson, Glynn Turman, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy


How I wanted to hate this film! The signs were all there. It was poised to be the dog of the year. In my humble opinion, the film undeniably fulfills this expectation; it is a dog, but a very likable dog. With what you could reasonably expect from this film, this probably represents an outstanding achievement.

First, it is based on an outlandish adventure novel of the same name by Clive Cussler, part of a long series of best-selling novels featuring the dashing and innovative hero, Dirk Diggler… er Dirk Pitt. Let me apologize for that cheap shot, and apologize to all people named “Dirk,” but the name represents a problem. In all fairness, Dirk Pitt predates Boogie Nights by some 30 years but what are you going to do? Casting Matthew McConaughey isn’t going to help.

So, here is the problem: You have a proven commodity in an accomplished literary series, with a living author who deservedly wants some measure of control. His last novel that was brought to the screen was Raise The Titanic. Since that was 25 years ago, that may not mean much to younger readers, but permit me some overwhelming understatement in saying that movie was not a success. I have not read a single one of Cussler’s novels, so I cannot and will not comment on their value, but I certainly can empathize with him. His novels reportedly make incredible scenarios excitingly plausible. In writing, you can offer explanations to make that work. If you fail, the book is buried. In film, the danger is just to look silly. If you spend $130 million, failure is not an option.

“Adventure has a new destination.” Somewhere, there is a person who gets paid for writing a tagline this lame. What is worse is that there are other people who get paid money to approve it. Looks like “silly” is in the forecast.

Who do you get to direct this? Breck Eisner doesn’t seem to have much of a track record for a big-budget risk like this. That name sounds familiar. Oh! He is son of Michael Eisner, now making movies for the studio that dad helped to save before his famous tenure at Disney. There is a high probability of silliness.

Four screenwriters! Last year Cussler sued Bristol Bay Productions over unauthorized changes to the script. The chance of silliness in this film is now 100%.

Sahara is a story of an adventurous, dedicated, and remarkably talented naval researcher, Dirk Dig… Pitt, Pitt (okay, I promise no more Dirk Diggler jokes), who is looking for a gold-coin-laden Confederate Ironclad battleship that he believes ended up in the African desert. If you are looking for plausibility, then this movie is not for you. Of course, judging from the state of American politics, plausibility isn’t very important to us any more. Dirk (McConaughey) meets a doctor from the World Health Organization who is investigating a potential plague that seems to be originating from the same area. Is there a connection? Penélope Cruz looks good in that role. Complicating things are the classic and expected tribulations of political unrest, greed, corruption, bad guys. You know, I was not sure why I should even have to see this film before writing a review, but I’m a purist.

And the film is surprisingly quite enjoyable. McConaughey has a dopey sincerity to his acting that can destroy a character, as in the film, Contact, but it works here. Cruz really doesn’t have to do anything beyond looking beautiful, but she actually gifts her character with a refreshing amount of dignity. William H. Macy is wasted here, but the man has to eat. The real hero of the actors in this film is Steve Zahn as the comic sidekick. He is funny and real, without being silly. In fact, the real dramatic chemistry that makes this film work is not between McConaughey and Cruz (who, in real life, are an item), but McConaughey and Zahn.

As much as I want to trash the rich-kid director, Breck Eisner does okay. His direction is not the problem, and even shows some occasional flashes of innovative brilliance. He shamelessly integrates a soundtrack full of old pop songs into the film in a way that doesn’t make me want to kill him. The action flows easily, fast enough to distract you from the enormous holes in the plot, yet never overbearing. Teenagers of all ages should enjoy this film.

What about the four screenwriters? It must be a thankless job—so little credit to share and so easy to blame. The novelist and his legion of fans will hate you for falling short of their vision. You try to inject a little topical thoughtfulness and authenticity into the mix, but you can’t do much because it has to please everybody. A big, friendly, entertaining, slightly silly dog of a movie is not so bad a compromise. Can you help it if it eats the cat’s poop?

—Steven Harding

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

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