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Paramount Home Video presents
Sahara HD-DVD (2005)

Dirk Pitt: What would you do if you were about to be exposed as the greatest polluter of all time?
Al Giordino: I don't know, run for President?

- Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: July 24, 2006

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz
Other Stars: Lennie James, William H. Macy, Delroy Lindo, Daniel Lobe, Lambert Wilson, Rainn Wilson
Director: Breck Eisner

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for action violence
Run Time: 02h:03m:54s
Release Date: July 25, 2006
UPC: 097360704143
Genre: adventure

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ CB+A- B+

DVD Review

The DVD Review and Extras Review are by Dan Heaton.

Clive Cussler's adventure novels have always seemed destined for major success as film adaptations. Nearly every tale follows the daring exploits of Dirk Pitt—the courageous Special Projects Director for NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency. Pitt journeys around the world in search of lost shipwrecks and continually becomes embroiled in much larger and dangerous affairs. Working alongside his lifelong friend Al Giordino, he faces off with criminals of all stature and nationality and makes plenty of stunning discoveries along the way. Cussler writes page-turning books that offer plots complex enough to please even more discerning readers. The stories are basically the typical B-level adventure tales, but the added historical elements help to enhance the experience.

Sahara is the second Cussler novel to reach the screen following the disastrous flop of Raise the Titanic, which soured the author on the movie business. This adaptation of one of his best novels arrives with considerable promise, but it also fails to truly capture the essence of his writing. It stars Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt and Steve Zahn as Al Giordino and cranks up the action in hopes of drawing a large audience. The general outline of the original Cussler story remains, with Pitt’s search for a lost Civil War Ironclad bringing him into contact with Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz). Along with Giordino and their buddy Rudi Gunn (Rainn Wilson), they face off with the nefarious General Kazim (Lennie James) and businessman Yves Massarde (Lambert Wilson). The villains’ partnership involves the workings of a toxic waste plant that may be doing much more than just eliminating waste.

This adventure story takes our heroes to a sparse African desert and down the Niger River in hopes of thwarting an environmental disaster. This setting leads to one impressive action sequence on the river and a series of mostly tiresome other battles. The characters’ close calls are mildly amusing, but they fail to offer more than just passing entertainment. Even the possibilities of the African setting are mostly wasted, with any real danger quickly vanquished through some lucky breaks. In comparison to such high entertainment as Raiders of the Lost Ark, this film seems paltry in comparison and a second-rate imitation.

Matthew McConaughey makes an acceptable Pitt and does his best to portray a different type of action hero. Unfortunately, the four screenwriters are unable to give him anything interesting to say and instead attempt to craft a loveable doofus. They move even further in that direction with Zahn’s Giordino, who differs considerably from the tank of a man generated by Cussler. The actor’s likable presence keeps his scenes afloat, but Zahn can only do so much with the limited material. Even less effective is Penelope Cruz as the attractive Rojas, with many of her dry line readings removing the story’s energy. Veteran actors William H. Macy and Delroy Lindo perform solidly in supporting roles, but they appear rarely and merely provide the backdrop to the main events.

Sahara's strangest (but understandable) contributor is director Breck Eisner, son of the former Disney leader and inexperienced for such a major production. He actually performs competently and avoids unnecessary quick cutting, but he cannot save this frustrating picture. In comparison to Cussler’s original novel, this version removes two of the most compelling elements at the beginning and conclusion. Their removal transforms a possibly intelligent adventure film into a confusing final product that is mediocre on its best day. Also, the inexplicable predominance of dull classic rock into a movie taking place in Africa generates a surreal tone that contradicts the heroes' goals. In an effort to offer a fun ride, Eisner and the screenwriting team remove the heart from the novel and instead deliver a surprisingly dull, conventional picture.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The HD picture generally looks excellent, as is appropriate for a very new film. Most shots are highly detailed, with vivid color and deep blacks. In particular, the native costumes are often spectacularly eye-popping, especially in relationship to the golds, whites and tans that dominate the stylized color scheme. There are a few spots with visible edge enhancement, but for most of the running time it's not a problem. The water under the opening credits has a somewhat digital appearance, but other water sequences look fine. On the whole this is a fine rendition.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English, French, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 DD+ audio (supplied in three languages) sounds great, with the explosions in the opening segment having plenty of depth and oomph. The soundtrack is excellent, with fine range and crisp clarity, whether from imported rock songs or more standard film scoring. The audio tends to be very forward-centric through much of the running time, with only nominal surround activity. The gun battles do, however, make ample use of the surrounds, which only heightens their impact.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 17 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Deleted Scenes
2 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) director Breck Eisner; 2) director Breck Eisner and Matthew McConaughey
Packaging: Elite
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Animatics
Extras Review: Sahara offers a solid collection of bonus features, including two commentaries featuring director Breck Eisner. The individual extras are described in the sections below. All are in standard definition except the trailer, which is in HD in this version (and wasn't included at all on the standard DVD).

Eisner participates in two feature-length commentaries that provide a wealth of information about the production. His solo discussion is dry and includes the typical statements about miniatures, CG, and live action. He does give too much plot summary and focus on some minute details, but it's generally a successful track. Matthew McConaughey joins Eisner for the second commentary, and their back-and-forth discussion helps to create a more energetic overview. The actor describes his interest in the character and preparation for the famous role.

Across the Sands of Sahara
This 15-minute piece begins by discussing the difficulties in the filming in Morocco. Although they shot during the cooler winter months, troubles ensued due to torrential rain, sandstorms, and locusts. The bulk of this promotional documentary covers the casting of the three lead actors. McConaughey's energetic seven-year pursuit of the role is surprising and showcases his dedication to the material.

Visualizing Sahara
Filmmaking junkies should enjoy this 20-minute documentary that covers a wide array of production elements. Director of photography Seamus McGarvey quickly describes the special camera filter used to make everything seem hotter. A good portion of the early time is spent focusing on the costume design, which required extensive research on the African customs. The impressive toxic waste plant receives a solid overview, which showcases the strong reliance on visual effects.

Cast and Crew Wrap Film
This collection of behind-the-scenes footage basically acts similar to a music video of the lengthy and expensive production. It offers plenty of sound bytes from the director, actors, and crew, and shows everyone having an enjoyable time.

Deleted Scenes
My expectations were high for the deleted scenes, which hopefully would depict some of the book's better scenes that were chopped. Unfortunately, these four scenes (lasting about a minute each) only scratch the surface. The most interesting are Kitty Mannock's Crash and Finding Kitty Mannock's Plane, which present an intriguing subplot that was deleted because of poor audience test scores. In the other scenes, The Long Kiss gives Steve Zahn a chance to act silly, and Oceanographers Die in the Desert is unnecessary filler material.

The HD-DVD also offers a pair of animatics of key sequences and three sets of storyboard comparisons. If the Easter Egg that was on the standard DVD is present, I wasn't able to locate it.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Clive Cussler was apparently infuriated by the alterations made to his novel, and his anger appears understandable when viewing Sahara. This appears to be the type of franchise that could endure over several pictures and generate considerable revenue, but it will go nowhere without its creator's blessing. After watching this pedestrian release, I'm not sure if that would be such an unfortunate situation.


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