I didn't want to see this movie. Am I allowed to say that? Whenever I hear about a comedy set in a desert, I immediately flash back to 'Ishtar,' the notorious 1986 Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman boondoggle that remains one of the biggest box office bombs in history. I imagine overpaid actors running around all sweaty in the heat, with their shirts on their heads screaming bad dialogue at each other in a desperate attempt to be "zany." So coming into 'Sahara,' I didn't exactly have a lot of confidence. Another 'Indiana Jones' spoof, especially one starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz doing their best 'Romancing the Stone' imitation -- did the world really need this movie? And, more importantly, did I really need to see it?
Much to my surprise, 'Sahara' turns out to be a fun, perfectly enjoyable souffle of a movie, despite all that sand. A lighthearted hybrid of 'Indiana Jones,' 'National Treasure' and 'The Mask of Zorro,' it is the perfect no-brainer entertainment tailor made for lazy Sunday afternoons. Nicely blending humor, adventure, romance and derring-do and fueled by the charisma of its stars, 'Sahara' is the kind of movie-movie people say they don't make anymore. No, this is no rival to 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' but it is refreshing to watch a movie that isn't grim, crude, overly violent or wallowing in torture. I suppose I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but this movie really brought me back to my summers spent in the early '80s, sitting alone in a darkened theater watching movies like 'The Goonies,' 'Young Sherlock Holmes' and 'The Jewel of the Nile.'
Since the plot of 'Sahara' really doesn't matter all that much (though perhaps it should) and it is best to leave the film's surprises intact, I'll just say that the film is based on the popular Dirk Pitt literary series by Clive Cussler (who famously disowned this movie shortly after its release, claiming it bore little resemblance to his source material). Having never read any of the novels, I can't say how original they were or how faithful 'Sahara' is to Cussler's creation. But certainly the film feels nothing but derivative. You can practically count off all the pastiches and homages and allusions to great cinema adventures past and present. Yet, oddly, this only adds to 'Sahara's charm. Director Breck Eisner pumps up the situations and the action with such a knowing wink there is no mistaking that the film is very much aware that the audience is in on the game. The cast, too, has a great deal of fun, all but breaking the fourth wall to tell us that yes, they really are having the time of their lives making this movie.
Funny enough, though, the cast may be the weakest aspect of 'Sahara.' Certainly, this is as handsome a studio film you're likely to see, with nothing but top-notch cinematography, production design and costuming. Yet somehow, Matthew McConaughey (though he also co-produced) doesn't strike me as the type of A-list first choice actors the makers of a film like this would go for (was Nicolas Cage busy?) Penelope Cruz is also not exactly my idea of the perfect femme fatale -- she's certainly no Karen Allen, or even a Rachel Weisz -- and she strangely lacks chemistry with McConaughey, despite the fact they were supposedly a real-life during the film's production. And then there is the ever-dependable Steve Zahn, who has the sidekick shtick down pat, and even though his routine is getting a little old I bet he was cheap. Again, this ensemble has tons of fun in their roles, but I couldn't help but feel a few more original casting choices may have brought 'Sahara' up a notch above the merely efficient. As it is, this is a perfectly enjoyable, respectable way to widdle away 123 minutes. Which surprises me more than anyone.
Watching 'Sahara' right after 'Sleepy Hollow,' which was the first Paramount HD DVD title I chose to review, was a study in contrasts to say the least. Where 'Sleepy Hollow' is dark and grainy and largely colorless, 'Sahara' is like stepping out into a bright desert oasis -- lush, vibrant and as shiny as a new penny. That's not to deride the visual style of 'Sleepy Hollow,' of course, as it is entirely appropriate to the film, but 'Sahara' on HD DVD boasts the kind of transfer that gives you a better taste of how high-def can look.
Indeed, just about every aspect of this presentation is quite excellent. The source material is pristine, with not a speckle of dirt or other blemishes noticeable, and the kind of smooth, grain-free look that looks more like a digital photo than film. Color reproduction is also impressive -- hues are rich, vivid and free of chroma noise and smearing. Fleshtones are also a realistic shade of orange, which gives the film a warm glow that is very appealing. Blacks and contrast are also excellent, with even the film's few dark scenes (indeed, the vast majority of 'Sahara' takes place in sunshine-soaked daytime exteriors) boasting above-average shadow delineation. At times the level of detail and depth to the image closes in on the best HD DVD transfers I've seen, with the kind of three-dimensional appearance that really shows off the high-resolution capabilities of the format.
However, I will say that there are the occasional moments that are lacking in sharpness, or when colors look overpumped. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles. I can't imagine anyone failing to be impressed in gneeral by this transfer, and with 'Sahara' Paramount has certainly announced itself as being more than capable of delivering high-quality pre-recorded HD content.
Like 'Sleepy Hollow,' 'Sahara' also includes both Dolby Digital-Plus and DTS 5.1 surround options (French and Spanish Dolby Digital-Plus dubs are also provided). And once again, the Dolby Digital-Plus in particular really shines, delivering a very aggressive, enveloping experience that is sure to please.
As befitting an action film with a big budget, 'Sahara' boasts terrific sound design. All channels are active, with noticeable uses of discrete pans across the entire soundfield. Imaging is very good, with near-seamless transitions and excellent fidelity. Dynamic range also earns a solid "A," with a very full presence from lows to highs. Bass is delivered forcibly but tightly, and doesn't overwhelm the mix like some big-budget action soundtracks can. Balance is also well done, though I did have to adjust my volume control to compensate for low dialogue levels at times. However, if I do have to make a complaint, it is that the quieter scenes are front-heavy -- atmospheric sounds could be more prominent, as could the score. But when this one works, it works.
Paramount has loaded 'Sahara' with extras, porting over all of the same supplements that can be found on the standard DVD release of the film. Though I didn't feel 'Sahara' warranted all that much in-depth discussion, the extras are appropriate to the film's tone, being largely jovial and light-hearted.
Included are not one but two audio commentary tracks, and surprisingly, the solo track with director Breck Eisner is actually better than the second track where he is joined by Matthew McConaughey. Perhaps it is that old beer-drinking-buddies syndrome thing, but when the two get together they fall into rambling "Remember that day...?" banalities, whereas Eisner is much more focused on his own. He and McConaughey also recycle too many of the same stories from the first track. So if you are actually interested in the making of the film, I'd go with Eisner solo. Sorry, Matt.
Up next are three featurettes totaling 45 minutes: "Sands of Sahara," "Visualizing Sahara" and the "Cast and Crew Wrap Film." Though many continue to criticize Paramount's support for supplementary material on their standard DVDs, I find that their in-house EPK stuff is actually the best of any of the studios. And 'Sahara' is no exception. This is actually a nice little three-part overview of the making of the film, with a snappy pace, plenty of making-of material to stave of boredom and the usual on-set interviews, but since the film is all about fun, the glossy nature of it all doesn't irritate. Oddly, however, for a big-budget action film there is not very much on the creation of effects and stunts; but then if you've seen one blue screen demo on a DVD, you've probably seen them all.
Also included are four Deleted Scenes, but they run less than five minutes and are completely forgettable. I often wonder why studios even bother with this kind of stuff, when something like a gag reel might have been more entertaining.
Finally, rounding out the package is the film's theatrical trailer presented in widescreen and full 1080p video.
'Sahara' is a silly film but a great deal of fun. Light in tone and filled with 'Indiana Jones'-esque derring do, it is the perfect Sunday afternoon time waster. And Paramount has produced a strong HD DVD for it, which shows that the studio is already capable of delivering high-quality discs right out of the gate. A very good transfer, soundtrack and extras -- including a few bonus features not even on the standard DVD release -- make this one a no-brainer if you're a fan of the film.