RIORI Vol 3, Installment 48: Breck Eisner’s “Sahara” (2005)


Sahara


The Players…

Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lennie James, Lambert Wilson, Rainn Wilson (no relation) and William H Macy, with Glynn Turman and Delroy Lindo.


The Story…

While investigating the history of a lost Civil War treasure ship in Egypt, adventurer Dirk Pitt stumbles upon an epidemic that’s contaminating the water table. And the story goes ever deeper, with evil industrialists, power hungry warlords and even the desert itself hell-bent on keeping Pitt from his quarry and stemming the epidemic.

Just yer typical day at NUMA.


The Rant…

When I was li’l kid, VCRs were a big deal.

In the early to mid 80s these miraculous home video watching gizmos were (finally) sold at reasonable prices. A decent machine could set you back $400 in 80s dollars. Not everyone in your neighborhood to afford one though, despite all the video rentals popping up everywhere. There were videos a-plenty to be rented at Blockbuster, The Wall, Hollywood Video, your local supermarket, the veterinarian, Neptune, etc. But of course you still had to have the damned player. What to do? What to do?

One could rent a unit for an unreasonable price in questionable condition for maybe 24 hours. More if you were sly enough to rent one when Daylight Savings ended. But that was a crapshoot with an emphasis on crap. Back in the Stone Age my dad rented a machine and a bunch of flicks to watch for my tenth birthday party. I’ll spare you the details. My dad got the overheated thingamabob to work with a hack akin to jamming a matchbook in your car’s tape deck (and if that analogy doesn’t date me, no girl ever will). Not long after that we got our own VHS. Better safe and alla dat.

Another popular remedy for the video deprived was a neighborhood viewing party. The folks who had the VCR would invite friends over with a selection of rented tapes. Votes were taken, snacks were eaten, and a consensus was reached on to watch that night. Democracy in action. Warms your heart to be in these United States. Amen.

*Where the f*ck is he going with this? I swore I saw Penelope Cruz’ name up there. Get to it.*

Getting to it. It was at one of these particular parties that I first caught Raiders Of The Lost Ark. My buddies’ folks got a fresh machine and they invited my ‘rents, my sisters and me to hunker down in front of the boob tube for a night’s insanity. First time I got see Indy in action. The whip. The hat. The snakes. Boy howdy.

I didn’t get it.

Settle down. I was ten. I mean, I had a vague idea of what was going on well before the Nazis’ faces melted like chocolate bunnies in a blast furnace. I mostly wondered what Han Solo was up to in the desert there. The guy who made the film—Spiel-something. Maybe you’ve heard of him—did that flick I saw with the boy and his pet alien which I found funny and also made me fall in love with Drew Barrymore. I was six. Don’t judge me.

Anywho, that big rock thing was cool. The rest of Raiders failed me. I was ten then. I had bigger concerns regarding where’d I’d score more Nerds candy and when the local pool would open for the summer. Them Lego models ain’t gonna build themselves, neither.

So I saw it, mostly just to know I saw it. Bucket list entry number jillion in the can. But just because I didn’t “get” Raiders didn’t mean I didn’t dig it. Well, not in the traditional way. Either due to the ragtag video/audio quality of the movie, I got it into my sugar-deprived, pre-puber skull that action movies should look like this. I don’t mean how Raiders looked. I mean the aesthetic. Adventure movies should look grainy, ragtag and knockabout. It enhanced the rough-and-ready flavor of Raiders for me. I may not have gotten the movie, but I did like what I saw. Melting Nazis and all.

I guess it’s hindered my views on adventure flicks over the past three decades. I could’ve gotten behind a lot more films like Raiders if I wasn’t looking through a cracked TV screen. I have, but the weird bite I got from Indy’s first cinematic adventure (or The Thief Of Baghdad, or the live-action The Jungle Book, or the original Clash Of The Titans) left an indelible mark on my movie mind. Adventure movies should be scruffy, ramshackle, unpretentious and devoid of anything slick. They should be all about gee whiz bucky gizmo splash and dash and flair. No sweetening. Never sweetening. Never shine the corners. Keep it grubby. Make it earthy, chewy even. Indiana Jones was filthy and sweaty for the better part of Raiders (so was Marion if you thing about it). I liked the grime. Sure, the action was cool even if the plot eluded my juvenile mind, but I thought the whiz-bang was better for the quality of the video, audio and (now understood to be) DIY special effects.

Ain’t nostalgia great? And I never got beat up by bullies and had my GoBots stolen. Weep.

Keeping my palsied view on how adventure films should look and feel, I’ve kept my eyes out for some glints from the sun, regardless of when a film was released. Trying to combat my myopia I guess. Beyond that ten-year-old-kiddie bias I still am a sucker for silly swashbuckling. At heart, who isn’t that loves movies?

That being said, no surprise here that during my movie sifting, Raiders kindred spirit Sahara caught my attention. Story sounded cool. Exotic locations. 12st Century swashbuckling. Hell, Matt McConaughey starring as an action hero? With Steve Zahn no less as his derring-do sidekick no less (I’m as shocked as you are)? Into the queue with you, Sahara.

Did the flick match up with the hazy, grainy memory of yours truly’s rough-and-ready ideals?

Definitely sorta…


The Natural Underwater &  Marine Agency (or NAMBLA. Sorry, couldn’t resist), better known as NUMA, is the authority concerning undersea excavation for lost treasures and edifices from ancient civilizations. Underwater archaeologists is a simpler and more apt title for their elite crew. And the most elite—and most driven—diver is Dirk Pitt (McConaughey). Sure, uncovering lost history on the ocean floor is wonderful for science and scholars, but at heart Pitt is a treasure hunter, a modern day pirate. But instead of stealing elicit booty it’s the thrill of the hunt that drives him. It’s that rush that’s taken him and his NUMA crew to the Sahara in search of a lost treasure ship. The CSS Texas, a Civil War Confederate ironclad that disappeared from the historical record 130 years ago. As well as the planet.

Wait a minute. Ironclads weren’t designed for ocean-going travel. And to Africa no less? What’s up with that?

There’s the mystery. The Texas was laden with thousands of dollars in gold coinage, ostensibly minted to “fund” the CSA’s desperate armed forces. Locating such a score is too much for Pitt to resist, no matter how cockamamie the historical record is. There’s a lost ship packed to the gunwales with gold out there in the Sahara, and by God Pitt and the NUMA crew are going to find it!

It’s never that easy.

World Health Organization (not NAMBLA) Dr Eva Rojas (Cruz) has more pressing matters on her mind. Bigger than lost gold. A terrible plague has been ripping through Mali, leaving its victims blind, crazed and ultimately dead. She and her associate Dr Frank Hopper (Turman) suspect something more sinister is afoot with this epidemic. It’s spread too fast, too sudden to be considered a natural phenomenon. Rojas decides it’s necessary to travel deeper into Mali to better assess the damage. But Mali is war-torn, thanks to the charismatic and psychotic Major Kazim (James) who appears to have some personal stakes in keeping this plague—and any potential treatment—off any record.

When Dr Rojas digs a little too deeply Kazim’s thugs aim to take her out. Only by happenstance NUMA and Pitt come to her rescue. Eva finds herself on NUMA’s flagship and welcomed aboard by Pitt’s goofball aide-de-camp Algiers “Al” Giordano (Zahn). She explains her strange circumstances and Al figures that maybe his best bud Dirk and him might be able to lend a hand. Hell, they were going upriver anyway. Traveling into dangerous, fractured Mali to find a cure for a plague? No sweat.

So long as they find some lost treasure along the way…


Right here’s a prime example why RIORI exists. Sahara was too big to fail, and yet it did. Financially, if not with the fun factor. It has nothing really to do with gaging the movie’s quality, but it did pique my interest. Here’s the numbers.

If we recall The Standard, any clunky movie that hovers into my view might have a poor (but not necessarily awful) box office turnout. Sahara did indeed fit the bill under that criterion. But here’s the weird thing—maybe another telling thing about Hollyweird’s ever-increasing sense of overblown entitlement to more money for less art, and f*ck you general public—by the numbers the movie did do well at the theaters. At least on the surface.

In 2005, Sahara opened at number one at the box office. Good for the cast and crew. Opening weekend yielded almost $20 million. Again, not bad. The overall takeaway when the sun set was approximately $120 million. Impressive. Where’s the whole “sh*tty turnout” argument? That big buck-twenty is a lot of cheddar. ‘Splain dat away, Mr Smartass Movie Guy!

This is where that damned devil math comes in. Despite Sahara faring pretty well here and abroad, its gargantuan budget of $130 million for production and over $80 million in distribution expenses the film barely recouped half of its original budget. Sahara lost about $105 million at the end of the day, and contested by various accounting firms as to what the ultimate fallout was. I think there was even some government oversight committee slapped together to get to the financial bottom as to what’s up with certain big-budget flicks’ production waltzing with box office failure.

You can at least credit Sahara for originality in that regard.

Okay. Back to me being judgmental and vicious.

Sahara did offer the epic sweep of a globetrotting adventure movie, replete with intrigue, action, cool toys, a dashing hero, a Costello to his Abbott, and a nasty villain we love to hate. All necessary things, BTW (and having Cruz aboard didn’t hurt none, neither). However, it wasn’t terribly original. But what the hell? Sure, treasure hunt movies are not a new thing. Hell, all of the Indiana Jones movies were about our titular archaeologist pursuing some ancient, valuable trinket, gewgaw and/or dangerous religious doohickey. Well worn ground here. Even Dirk Pitt’s alter ego, adventure writer Clive Cussler might be pointed out in a line up for being a fart away from Ian Fleming. And I ain’t talking in the Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang sense. He wrote the source material, by the way. Not Fleming. Focus, people.

So yeah, Sahara didn’t score any points in the originality department. There are only so many ways you can toss that pizza, really. It was fun, though. Kinda. Watching it I wasn’t actively thinking about Indy, nor my antediluvian VHS days either. In all honestly it was hard to do either, but more on that later. It’s that dang “kinda” qualifier that plagued my viewing experience. I wanted to get into Sahara, but I found it a challenge to get and/or keep engaged in the movie. Let alone follow the complicated, if not byzantine plot. Plots.

I coined a phrase in my noggin watching Sahara, mindful of my criteria regarding adventure movies (including the grainy, rough-and-ready stuff): the flick had a certain flair, sorta there. It wasn’t like Sahara was trying hard to be Indy turf or a Roger Moore-era 007 experience (yes, I said Moore and not Connery. Ever see The Man With The Golden Gun? Boom). In fact it moved along pretty nicely, thank you.

Just not consistently.

That’s a big uh-oh considering adventure movies. Sahara felt, well, constipated. Struggling under its own weight. Other adventure films have a pretty straight line to follow. A to B quest, and whatever hijinks ensue to give it some necessary flair. Again with Raiders (let’s just use that as our yardstick. Not sure if a lot of you ever caught Alan Quartermain serials), Indy and Marion are off to find the Ark. There was no real need for her bar burning down. Nor Indy slugging it out with the bruiser under the flying wing. There’s a school of thought that suggests even Indy himself wasn’t essential to the plot (but who else could deliver those high decibel, meaty punches?). But they added spice—flair—to an otherwise pretty run-of-the-mill actioner.

Sahara has some of that flair (the opening scenes, Eva stuck in the well, the raid on the solar farm, Dirk and Al jerryrigging that “skiff”) but due to sluggish pacing in fits and starts—including the chase scenes, of which there are many—it gets all bogged down. A lull in the breeze whispers at the corners, and a lot of that is straying from the tried-and-true and definitely unoriginal formula of decent adventure films: following that straight line.

Sahara‘s plotting is rather convoluted. I mean it’s easy to follow where the story is going, but there are so many jerks and jabs it’s akin to watching a UFC match on Valium. That looked cool. What was it? Whatever. Pass the Doritos.

The waters got rather muddied with Sahara. I think I’m not making much sense here, getting to the very nubbin of truth, but the whole plot was schizo. Sahara‘s promises of straight action and adventure got dashed with the “evil corporation” story. I mean the “ravaging warlord” story. No, it was the whole “Civil War legend/river-runs” story that popped up in and out of the main plot proper (if there really was one). It was all tad tricky to follow. Sahara didn’t have a throughput. It had a chess match. With camels. That much I was certain. There were camels. And that nebbish from The Office, too.

I’m also not sure if the heavy, micro-managed story sunk a lot of Sahara‘s flair and fun. Like I said, those things were there. But under the weight of the story’s delivery, a lot of the verve and urgeny got lost in the mix. Most of the humor fell flat, as well as being too broad. Our cast, although competent if not likable, felt held back (save Zahn, who’s a great character actor. Too bad he doesn’t catch a lot of work. He’s hilarious). If director Eisner was aiming for a 21st Century Raiders feel, he did it with a muted style. Some flair, sorta there. Blame the scenarists.

What I’m getting at is that Sahara was somewhat low-key for a supposedly rowdy action/adventure. I think think I know why, too. Boink, big surprise. The ostensible alpha plot of Pitt and Co searching for the lost treasure ship swiftly gets sidelined by the beta plot about the plague. With that, the whole adventure film feel slips into a socio-politco-eco meditation Trojan Horsed onto my TV. If an action flick has a message, it shouldn’t be overt. Gets in the way of the explosions, distressed damsels and dancing tigers on angel dust. The plot got convoluted, the treasure hunt thing got backburner’d and my attention drifted too often.

You get what I’m screaming now? If my childhood standard of how adventure films should look, sound and especially feel then Sahara grew not rough and tumble enough. It came across as ultimately overwrought and overproduced, like when George Lucas would not. Quit. F*cking around with the original Star Wars trilogy. That’s another thing. Sahara‘s big budget execution left nary a whit of character. All that cash made damn sure that all the bells and whistles were in full blare as the kitchen sink got tossed out the window and hopefully stuck. Sahara tried to have its cake. Tried to make too much sense. A lot of the adventure stuff got lost with the many diverging and converging plot threads, too much exposition, simultaneous languid and ADHD pacing (with the precious few scenes of serious action) and trying to convey a message, before God. In that vein, too much expo kills an action movie. It’s called an action movie, remember? Shut up and dance, already.

Where was the scruffiness? The feeling of adventure? The underlying lo-fi ethos that didn’t rely on CGI? The quirks and jokes and plausible denial that, yeah, Indy can cling to that sub’s conning tower all the way across the Mediterranean? It was there once and a while (and what was there was great), but the output was dizzying, and not it a whip-cracking kind of way. All the cool sh*t got hampered by the stuff I just mentioned. All of Sahara‘s clean and dense delivery didn’t leave a lot of room for unnecessary bits like shooting the swordsman to expedite matters. Hey, we all cross the median once in a while.

In other words, Sahara lacked charm. With all the potential, where was the charm here? Sahara didn’t have much, if any, that’s what. It lacked spark. It didn’t have that homespun quality that I enjoy, if not expect in adventure movies. Sahara was excessive, overly laden with expo and a rather heavy-handed message. It was too long, or at least felt that way. Too many intertwining plot threads. Too complex for your average, workaday adventure flick. Too much time demanding audiences to think. Death at the box office there. Sahara could’ve been so much more, if only it used less.

I’ll reel it back. Sahara had its fair share of obvious bright points. On the good side, Sahara‘s casting was impeccable. C’mon. Raiders had a super cast, from Ford to Black to Elliot for Pete’s sake. Despite the swamp our heroes had to muck through, at least Eisner knew how to assemble a great adventuring cast. I feel it was the best part of the movie.

Matt (I’ll refer to him as that because I have a bitch of a time spelling McConaughey) was a damn good maverick hero. He sure seemed to like being Dirk Pitt (even though his delivery was a lot like Wooderson only with money and a boat. Still trying to score that almost out-of-reach opportunity. All right, all right, all right). Matt’s glee was infectious, and a far cry from his more “serious” roles as of late. You couldn’t wait to hang out with this Dirk guy, either across the ocean or at your neighborhood cookout. Matt was cocky without being a doosh. He was sharp in a MacGuyver sense. He played the whole leading man/rogue thing to the hilt. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Now Steve Zahn’s Al was a stitch. The guy’s come a long way since Caroline In The City. Right, he’s supposed to be Pitt’s best bud and sidekick. Zahn’s Al is played like an even balance between clueless and the man behind the curtain. Batman couldn’t truly be Batman without trusty Robin. Or Bucky Barnes. Even Clifford the big, red dog. Zahn got all the best lines, and toed the line between dolt and savant equally well. Who knew how vital the right ballcap could be in social interactions?

Cruz, despite being the implied lady in need of a hero, held herself well. Both with character and devotion to the cause (message) without overplaying her hand. Maybe like you, I got acquainted with Cruz via psychodrama Vanilla Sky or the hard-edged Blow. The woman could never carry a movie, but pair her with the right actors? Box office gold. She’s a very good supporting actress, protean in all her roles. Her Eva is no different. If you consider it, she is the impetus that gets Sahara off and running, not some lost Confederate gold. Despite the pregnant plot, Cruz’ Rojas was the most effervescent element to keep the movie afloat despite its own weight.

So needless to say, I loved Sahara‘s cast. Macy was fun. James was menacing. Lambert was slime. Wilson was the resident dork. Despite all the hallmarks of a straight ahead adventure film getting hot and heavy with Sahara, Eisner sure was a whiz when it came to working his chess board. It kept the film on track—albeit against the sandy grain of the story—which in turn allowed that vital flair now and again. Gave me enough hope to keep watching the thing.

It’s that kind of smarts that made Sahara so disappointing to me. I had to watch the movie twice (never a good sign) to both “get” the plot and see if I missed any flashes in the pan. I did and I didn’t. Overall, neglecting my myopic view regarding watching adventure flicks via sh*tty magnetic tape equating quality, Sahara was a good, bloated, overreaching flick with a great cast and a plot as thick as molasses in January with too big a budget to demand urgency. Like I said, schizo. Frustrating.

So thank you. This installment was brought to you courtesy of a little smear of Vaseline on the lens of memory. VHS sucks on toast against DVDs, Blu-Rays, YouTube feeds and bedeviled childhood wonder. Be kind, rewind.

*whip crack*

“I am so tired of being shot at!”


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Sahara tried hard to be fun. But it tried. Half the time it was fun, then that pesky plot kept rearing its head. Mind the mixture. It’s good it fits and starts, but then that’s what I’ve heard about smack. Party at the Moon Tower then.


Stray Observations…

  • “Hey, my dad collects coins.”
  • I do love the 70s soundtrack.
  • That was the silliest chase scene ever.
  • That whole “Dirk Pitt Adventure” tag in the opening credits: was Sahara supposed to launch a franchise? For those not paying attention, it didn’t.
  • “You should put the money to better use…”
  • Breck? Isn’t that a kind of shampoo?
  • “I have some bad news about your boat…”
  • “Nobody cares about Africa!” All too true.
  • I gotta admit, the improvised windjammer scene made me smile.
  • “I’ll get the bomb. You get the girl.” “Deal.” Go! Team! Venture!
  • “Hi! How are ya?”

Next Installment…

You can’t keep anything quiet in a small down, be it an affair, a crime or an insistent need to abscond with millions of dollars to get the f*ck out of said small town. The Ice Harvest is on deck, folks. I’ll think of a more clever tagline the next time out. Peace and chicken grease, bitches.


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