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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.