Sahara (United States/Spain, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Sahara takes the action/adventure story to new heights of preposterousness. In a way, that's not a bad thing, since it allows a certain level of guilty enjoyment. You're never expected to take anything in the movie seriously, because the characters and filmmakers don't. They're constantly directing knowing winks and nods at the audience, as if to reassure us that they know the story is stupid, but, hey, dumb can be fun sometimes. And there are times during Sahara when this approach works. Maybe 50 minutes worth of times. The problem? The movie is 127 minutes long.

Sahara feels like it was cobbled together from discarded pieces of National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark. To its credit, this one is more enjoyable than the former film, because the action sequences are (for the most part) energetic and occasionally show flashes of originality. Unfortunately, when comparing it to even the weakest of the Indiana Jones movies, it fails to measure up. None of those films took themselves seriously, either, but they nevertheless developed characters worth caring about and provided stories that sucked us in (instead of just sucked). Sahara is so busy proclaiming its silliness that we never get a feel for the characters or believe on any level in their circumstances. This is an exercise in bad plotting, ripe dialogue, and semi-impressive stunts.

There are times when Sahara threatens to put its audience to sleep. The film is top-heavy with exposition. In fact, it takes 40 minutes before we get to the first major action sequence. After that, they come fairly regularly throughout the rest of the movie, but there are still significant breaks in between. And, when the characters aren't fighting or dodging bullets, they are wandering around and talking. The dialogue is so cheesy that it has to be intentional. There's no other way to explain a line like: "He put the 'war' back in 'warlord.'" All of this filler serves to pad out the movie to an unnecessary two-plus hours. A tighter script would have done a better job staving off bouts of boredom. As it is, we're stuck with a movie that's about 40% low-brow enjoyment and 60% tedium.

The film's main characters are treasure hunters Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and Al Giordino (Steve Zahn), a couple of wild and crazy guys who have known each other from kindergarten and pretty much spent every waking moment of their lives together - school, the military, and now their "adult" jobs, working for an archeological society. Dirk's pet project is discovering the location of a lost Civil War iron boat that he believes to have made it across the Atlantic to Africa. When he discovers a clue to its possible whereabouts, he's off in pursuit. Tagging along is Eva Rojas, a doctor for the World Heath Organization, who is looking for the source of a new plague. Her destination - somewhere in the Sahara - is roughly the same as the guys', so they team up. The bad guys, for the record, are a wealthy industrialist (Lambert Wilson) and an inhumane dictator (Lennie James). They're covering things up, and when our intrepid heroes get too close to the truth, things get dangerous.

We are supposed to assume that some sort of relationship develops between Dirk and Eva, but the chemistry between real-life couple McConaughey and Cruz is so feeble that it's easier to believe that their characters are just pals. Human dynamics, to the extent that there are any, are quickly cast aside when we are asked to contemplate the concept of an 1860s floating war boat buried under a sand dune in the middle of a desert. Oddly, that's not even the biggest leap of logic Sahara asks us to make. There's something about the exaggerated impact of leaking toxic substances that will make even the most devout environmentalist chortle.

This is the kind of movie where talented actors like to slum because it means a good paycheck and not a lot of effort. I'm referring to Delroy Lindo, who plays the obligatory CIA agent, and William H. Macy, who is Dirk's employer. Macy is a stabilizing influence, bringing to Sahara what he brought to Cellular. He gets his share of laughs, although not as many as Steve Zahn. McConaughey, looking buff but failing to make us accept him as an action hero, is not impressive, and Cruz is a black hole. She lacks screen presence.

Director Breck Eisener (his father, Michael, must have a shampoo fetish) makes the leap here from music videos to feature films. Although he gives us some nice moments, and shows aptitude when it comes to generating suspense within an action sequence, he needs to learn a little more about pacing. It should not take a movie of this sort 1/3 of its running time before we get to the first 007-inspired chase sequence. (Anyone else notice that the music sounds like it was borrowed from John Barry?) The film is "based on" a novel by Clive Cussler. Reportedly, those who have read the book are trying to figure out whether there are any similarities other than the title and the names of the characters.

This is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 special. It's not the sort of movie you see in a theater (despite the Lawrence of Arabia-inspired sandscapes). Instead, the ingredients to derive maximum enjoyment include a copy on DVD, plenty of beer, and a group of quick-witted friends. By the end of an evening in those circumstances, you may think Sahara is one of the best films of 2005. Otherwise, you may wonder why you bothered.

Sahara (United States/Spain, 2005)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2005-04-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1