"Sahara" has all the hair and none of the "ah"

by Eric Melin on April 8, 2005

in Print Reviews

Adventure novelist Clive Cussler is suing the producers of “Sahara,” the new Matthew McConaughey action flick, because his contract says he had final script approval and, he claims, they ignored that, despite his objections to the script.

“All I can say is I don’t know whose book they adapted, but it wasn’t mine,” he recently remarked.

I’ve never read Cussler’s novel, but I believe the author has a point. Here’s why: His “Sahara” is a full 576 pages long. The movie “Sahara” is a 2-page outline, a sketch. It is a plot synopsis, a movie pitch. It is a Tae Bo workout; a lesson in Hollywood Jazzercise, all dolled up and dumbed down.

There are those who want nothing more from their weekend night out at the movies than predictable, escapist fun. I understand that. I really do. “Spider-Man 2” is a near-perfect example of great escapist fare, and I loved every second of it. But that doesn’t mean we should settle for a movie so lazy that 100 percent of its character development takes place in the opening credit montage. In its absence, director Breck Eisner swaps a slow camera pan over family photos, trophies, newspaper articles, and postcards of its two heroes in various locales around the world. That is all the screen time he is willing to part with for such a frivolous detail like character.

“Sahara” gets the pesky requirement of creating a backstory out of the way early, so that it can concentrate on the matter at hand– fast-paced action scenes with no urgency and typical buddy picture dialogue that clues us in quickly and effortlessly on the archetypes that will be substituting for actual people in the rest of the film.

Cue the music: Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” serve as theme songs for McConaughey’s good-time hippie-Texan version of treasure hunter Dirk Pitt. He’s so cool he even has two big entrances. The first time we see him the camera is upside-down and he arrives like a hazy dream, shirtless and glistening from the water, just in time to save World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz) from an untimely death. The next time we see him, Pitt is being raised by a crane from the ocean, triumphantly straddling a shipwrecked statue like a conquering hero.

Eisner establishes Pitt’s iconic status immediately, and it takes about 10 seconds to figure out that Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) is his wise-cracking childhood pal. Together, as members of NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency), they traverse the Nile looking for a Civil War ironclad ship, search for the source of a mysterious disease, and go up against an evil African dictator.

Both actors play their types to a “T,” but they are never once believable. They hit their marks, and they look like they are having a good time playing make-believe in the desert with their toy guns and camels, but they are never convincing. McConaughey, although buffed up to the max for the role, displays none of the effortlessness that Bruce Willis possessed when he went from being that guy on “Moonlighting” to an instant action hero in “Die Hard.”

Some people may cry foul of the pretentious movie critic who cannot just relax and enjoy the ride, but to put it simply in those terms, this rollercoaster offers no thrills. I’ve been on it before. A lot. And I don’t like being able to anticipate the next corkscrew turn or big drop. But, more importantly, I want to feel my stomach fly up in my throat on the way down. “Sahara” is like those dinosaur coasters from the 80s that overstay their welcome in today’s theme parks. Sure, they go upside-down and have a couple hairpin turns, but ultimately they are dated, rickety and painful. You go on them once for nostalgia’s sake, and then you move on to the real thing.

Tonight, I think I’m going to watch “Spider-Man 2” again.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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