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Someday, when it’s grown up, Sahara would like to be Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

McConaughey's bright idea: make a Dirk Pitt movie
McConaughey’s bright idea: make a Dirk Pitt movie

Matthew McConaughey produces and stars in this action-comedy directed by Breck Eisner (son of lame-duck Disney chief Michael Eisner). He plays Dirk Pitt, with whom Clive Cussler’s readers will be familiar. Even for those of us who haven’t read the novels, the name Dirk Pitt conjures images of amazing heroics, damsels in distress, and exotic locales, which is exactly what Sahara delivers.

With the protagonist (McConaughey), the sidekick (Steve Zahn, stealing the show), and the girl (Penelope Cruz, lovely as ever) all introduced and firmly in place, the plot kicks off in Nigeria. Dirk wants to sail up the Niger in his boss’ boat to pursue a pet theory of his: that a Civil War ironclad sailed across the Atlantic, steamed up the Niger, and sank somewhere in Africa. The girl, Dr. Eva Rojas, hitches a ride with college-educated Dirk and his blue-collar sidekick Al. She wants to travel up the river to find the source of a new, disturbing disease, and hopefully stop it from spreading.

Serving as villains are the nameless paramilitary types who open fire on Dirk’s boat without explaining why. There is also a vaguely German businessman who you just know has to be evil, but you don’t quite know how at first.

Sahara’s four screenwriters find excuses for all sorts of adventure, including boat chases, gunfights, and stunts galore. They also manage to tip the hat to a whole multiplex of movies, from Raiders to James Bond to Star Wars — there’s even a contrived, unnecessary train scene that seems to exist solely as a salute Lawrence of Arabia.

And even when a specific movie isn’t singled out, you’ll recognize dozens of movie conventions: an ancient prophecy (that our heroes are conveniently able to read), a Big Cavernous Room, brassy action music, an ecological message, the fate of the world at stake, fierce natives who turn out to be allies, and this perfect line of dialogue from “the sidekick”: “I’ll find the bomb, you get the girl!”

No Raiders

There are two ways to view Sahara. The best way is to not take it too seriously and just enjoy the ride. But it’s impossible not to notice the other perspective, which is that Sahara is a derivative, generic action movie driven more by the autopilot than the characters or the plot.

So what makes Raiders a noble homage and Sahara a mere copy? That’s a fair question for which I don’t have a good answer, except to say that Raiders became a serial adventure; it didn’t merely copy the genre piecemeal. Raiders was relentless, surprising, and completely over the top. Perhaps I can’t explain exactly why it was so good, but then neither can the people behind Sahara.

A good illustration of the difference comes from Sahara. There is a scene in the desert where the heroes are stranded, and they come upon a plane wreck. They realize they won’t be able to fix the plane, but they manage to fashion a desert windsurfer. In Raiders, John Williams would have scored something suitably triumphant and Harrison Ford would be hanging on to his hat, getting queasy. Sahara settles for classic rock, choosing Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, with a jazzed crew screaming “woo-hoo!” Somehow, the movie seems to be asking “Aren’t we clever?” The perfect answer is “Not if you have to ask.”

Agree to Disagree

Sahara is the kind of movie my harshest critics (R. and J., you know who you are) usually disagree with me on. Although I enjoyed the movie, I can’t get past some of the details that just didn’t work, like the gratuitous classic rock soundtrack, or the silly cave-painting prophecy, or the hackneyed corporate villain and the save-the-earth call to arms.

But J. and R. will probably be thoroughly entertained, ignoring my complaints as too vague, too subjective, or just plain wrong. So I’ll cede a half-recommendation for Sahara, especially to R. and J., and I’ll even admit that it was kind of fun to watch, even if I was ultimately unimpressed.

  • steve patton: its been said before but I'll go for it again. they should have kept closer to the book, it would have cleared a whole lot of thigs up especially the air plane. it was supposed to belong to a woman named Kitty manock who was played by Clive Cussler's Daughter but they cut out the scene that explained it. Also in the book, the confederate submarine was actually carying president Abraham Lincon instead of the confederate treasury May 5, 2006 reply
    • Larry: Is this the Steve Patton that lived on Cloverleaf Drive in North Boulder??? October 26, 2010 reply
  • Kat: Could you please tell me the makers of the boat named Calliope in the movie Sahara.
    Thank you August 6, 2006 reply
    • Ray: The boat was made by halmatic mfg co but was VERY VERY ( new engiens, jet drive, eequipment, furniture, etc.) heavally modafied by Breck Eisnier and the prop department in this movie. everything you see in the movie was added/modafied and tthee actuall boat was white. But if you were planning don't dispare one of the three boats they used to shoot the movie is still for sale in the UK. I hope this answers your question.

      -Ray November 25, 2009 reply
  • Jack Hart: I also wanted to know who makes the yacht called Calliope. ??? August 16, 2006 reply
  • Jason: The boat is a British-made Hunton August 24, 2006 reply
    • Ray: no it was made by halmatic avd modafied November 25, 2009 reply
  • Brian K: Love the dj:)

    Needs love

    What is the boat company name?

    thank you
    B July 6, 2008 reply
    • Ray: Halmatic Made the boat November 25, 2009 reply
  • Tim: SAHARA was a lighthearted fun romp and a great way to be entertained for a couple of hours ... with fun music and lots of adventure ... requiring, as they all do, a certain suspension of disbelief. Has it been done before? Yes. Hasn't everything? Much like Cussler's books ... its a lazy Saturday afternoon read, not a biography or something educational or inspirational. Its not intended to be. Relax and enjoy the fun little romp that this movie provides ... complete with cheesy-yet-entertaining and enjoyably appropriate rock soundtrack and playful banter between the two main characters.

    Critics really DO need to chill out and just plain enjoy being entertained from time to time. September 24, 2008 reply
  • Robert: Update on boats. The Calliope is a Hunton XRS 43 (visit Hunton's website and you'll see the same design and paint scheme available for purchase as the Calliope.) VT Halmatic made the military river patrol boats only. Source: VT Group and Hunton websites. December 26, 2009 reply
    • Merlyn: The above post is correct.

      Hunton supplied the good guy's boats (Hunton RS 43) and Halmatic supplied the bad guy's boats. March 19, 2010 reply