The trailers and commercials for Sahara clearly express Paramount's hopes for an adventure film in the same thrilling and charming tradition of the Indiana Jones trilogy. Or if nothing else, the same league as the recent Mummy movies and late 2004's surprise smash National Treasure, which both appealed to audiences despite critical complaints. The ads even use a similar "Unravel the clues … make a discovery that will forever change history" campaign that clearly derive from Nicholas Cage's hit treasure hunt.
More importantly, Paramount and the filmmakers undoubtedly have high hopes of starting a successful film franchise. Sahara is the eleventh of eighteen pulp novels by best-selling author Clive Cussler, whose Dirk Pitt character has attracted a loyal following since first appearing in 1973. Pitt was created to be the ultimate Renaissance man—a combination of Indiana Jones's archaeological exploits (before Dr. Jones was ever dreamed up, of course), MacGyver's scientific improvisation (ditto), and James Bond's maverick action hero charm. Fans and astute film historians may recall a previous Pitt film adaptation, 1980's Raise the Titanic (starring Jason Robards and Richard Jordan), a box office failure that inadequately captured Cussler's story.
Sahara involves another lost ship even older than the Titanic. Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is a key member of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), a privately funded archaeological salvage team headed by Admiral Sandecker (William H. Macy) that assists governments around the world in recovering their lost cultural treasures. At the film's start, NUMA's state-of-the-art ship is working off the coast of West Africa to recover lost treasure.
Before finishing and leaving for an assignment in Australia, Pitt acquires a lead for one of his dream projects—a gold coin minted by the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Historical records tell of a Confederate ironclad battleship loaded with crates of the now priceless treasure, but it was never found, apparently lost at sea. Pitt believes the coin to be confirmation of legends that the ship traveled to Africa before meeting its fate. So with reluctant permission from Sandecker, Pitt takes a high-tech speedboat with his longtime friend Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) to discover the lost treasure.
Along the way, they assist Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz), a beautiful doctor with the UN's World Health Organization on the trail of a mysterious plague that's beginning to spread through the area. She finds herself in peril when her work attracts the attention of French industrialist Massarde (Lambert Wilson) and Mali dictator General Kazim (Lennie James). Could those two be in cahoots and responsible for the spreading disease? Might their plans have more disastrous global ramifications if they're not stopped? And is there a chance that the lost Confederate ironclad might be uncovered in the process?
Hey, Indiana Jones follows pretty incredible storylines too, but one of the biggest problems with Sahara is its lack of focus. It apparently wasn't enough to have a simple treasure hunt in Sahara—we also get a deadly disease, a potential ecological disaster, and political upheaval in Mali. It's probably a good thing that the film disposes of book subplots pertaining to Lincoln's assassination, a long lost female pilot (a la Amelia Earhart), and a gold mine run by slaves. The existing plotlines already crowd the film and barely tie together with the loosest of threads—not having read the book, perhaps the lost plot developments help explain everything better. While the search for the ironclad seems to be at the heart of the film, based on the ads and a prologue showing it escape from Union army cannon fire, it ultimately takes a backseat to the environmental plot.
Which leads our heroes to some serious plot contrivances. Pitt may be one of the world's leading treasure hunters in the books, but in the film, he and his companions are among the luckiest on the planet. They stumble onto all the major plot points—literally in some cases. During some recreational time in a village, a soccer ball gets away (far away), leading our heroes to a sort of map room. Some random explosions during an action sequence uncover another part of the mystery. Stranded in the Sahara? Never fear—you're sure to stumble on what you need to survive in the world's largest desert, spanning more than 3.5 million square miles.
Part of the fun of the Indiana Jones movies and National Treasure is that they led viewers on a quest, however implausible, stringing together archaeological mysteries with impressive action sequences. In Sahara, it's pretty much all improvised from the perspective of the characters, but a bit too convenient from that of the audience.
As far as adventure movies go, Sahara is surprisingly lacking in action. It's initially refreshing to see a movie that doesn't obsess over bombarding the audience with dumb action sequences, giving due time to develop the characters, settings, and back-stories. But when all those developments prove fruitless and even dull, the audience quickly becomes hungry for some adventure.
Yet aside from the mildly exciting prologue detailing the ironclad's escape and a brief, rapidly cut brawl involving Pitt early on, there's virtually no action for the first 45 minutes. By the end of the movie, excluding brief examples of stunt work and sneaking, there are really only four genuine action sequences. And while those scenes are generally handled well, they're not much more thrilling than what can be seen on television—certainly nowhere near as breathtaking as Indiana Jones. They tend to alternate between the routine and the ridiculous.
Even the attempts at humor fall short. There are some funny bits, though they're revealed in the trailer. The film too often relies on the charisma of the stars for laughs, rather than clever writing or funny situations. Count how many times they try to milk laughs by letting Zahn's character get the drop on a bad guy while smirking, "Hi, how are ya doing?" The action scenes are peppered with clichés intended to lighten the situation, but ultimately weakening the movie. "There's no way that should have worked, right?" Right. Or, "I'm so tired of being shot at!" So are we.
Sahara boasts an attractive cast and they do a good job—perhaps too good for this movie. The three leads make serviceable action heroes, even if some of their dialogue is forced. But the villains are woefully underdeveloped, although Lambert Wilson is far more believable in this film by acting less like the over-the-top French caricatures seen in The Matrix sequels and Catwoman. Macy's role is likeable but small, and Delroy Lindo is completely wasted as a CIA agent in a role that amounts to little more than a cameo.
It's not that this is a bad movie. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if some embraced it like National Treasure as a wholesome adventure film that's family friendly. There's little to no bad language, and for the most part, the violence is of the random gunfire and explosion variety. The primary reason for the PG-13 rating is the gravity and intensity of the plague scenes early on. But unfortunately, Sahara isn't a good movie either, more likely to generate indifference than thrills. It's vapid, lengthy, and mostly lifeless … kind of like the desert it's named for.Discussion starters
- Pitt's dream of finding the lost ironclad battleship is frowned upon and mocked by his colleagues. At what point does pursuing a dream become obsession? When does it become an unhealthy quest?
- The central characters find themselves in the middle of a political skirmish with potentially global ramifications. Were their actions appropriate, or should they have handled them through diplomatic means? When does involvement become interference?
- At one point, a tribal leader wrestles over whether or not to lead his people into a battle that they are likely to lose, but Pitt argues that it would lead to their freedom. How much are we willing to sacrifice for the greater good? How much is too much?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
for a movie rated PG-13 because of action violence, there's surprisingly little action in Sahara. There are the usual fistfights, gunplay, and explosions found in adventure films and television programs. The disease subplot is the most intense aspect of the movie, making it inappropriate for younger children. Otherwise, with no sexual content and little to no bad language, Sahara is a "light" PG-13, generally appropriate for family viewing and most kids 10 and up.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Picturescompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/14/05
Matthew McConaughey (Contact, Reign of Fire) takes his turn in Indiana Jones territory in Breck Eisner's Sahara, playing the part of adventurer Dirk Pitt, the hero of Clive Cussler's novel.
Cussler is not pleased by the film's departures from his original plot, but that didn't keep Sahara from leaping to the top of the box office. McConaughey is backed up by Penelope Cruz (After the Sunset, Frida) and Steve Zahn (Out of Sight, Riding in Cars With Boys) in a fast-paced adventure that has critics—mainstream and Christian press alike—pulling out their thesauruses to find synonyms for "dry," "barren," "wasteland," and "parched." In other words, they're not very impressed.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "It's not that this is a bad movie. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if some embraced it like National Treasure as a wholesome adventure film that's family friendly. But unfortunately, Sahara isn't a good movie either, more likely to generate indifference than thrills. It's vapid, lengthy, and mostly lifeless … kind of like the desert it's named for."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it a "lackluster and, at times, absurdly silly action adventure. Aside from some handsome David Lean-flavored photography, Sahara, like the desert itself, is, for the most part, arid."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Eisner … doesn't seem to trust the material enough to keep a consistent tone throughout. Still, if you like your adventures to be of the mindless variety, you may find something to appreciate in Sahara. It's just that finding it may be a bit like coming across an oasis while wandering about in an arid wasteland."
Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "Improbable. That's a word that isn't likely to stray far from moviegoers' minds as they watch old-school explorer Dirk Pitt and his wisecracking buddy escape close call after close call after close call after close call. Whether it's dodging bullets, defusing a bomb or surviving a deadly fall, these macho men excel at making ridiculous feats look easy and, well, ridiculous."
While it has earned moderate applause from a few, most mainstream critics conclude that Sahara is "dry and lifeless."from Film Forum, 04/21/05
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "It's easy to compare Sahara to last year's surprisingly successful National Treasure. But where National Treasure held to a certain silly logic and narrative structure, Sahara becomes increasingly unhinged as the story progresses."
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