An African-set cross between 1985's "The Goonies" and 2004's "National Treasure
," "Sahara" reinforces just how imaginatively written and energetically directed "The Goonies" really was and how, on second thought, "National Treasure
" wasn't so bad, after all. A plodding, mostly flat big-screen adaptation of Clive Cussler's novel, "Sahara" has been written by no less than four separate people and directed by Breck Eisner, the wet-behind-his-ears filmmaker son of Disney CEO Michael Eisner. While it may be obvious how the younger Eisner got the job, what isn't so forthcoming is how so many writers could work on a screenplay and not come up with hardly any memorable lines, any fresh characters, or even a point.
Billed in the opening credits as a "Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure," the porno-named Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) actually turns out to be an ace explorer for NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) who convinces his superior, Admiral James Sandecker (William H. Macy), to allow he and sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) to trek across West Africa in search of the "Ship of Death." Dating back to the Civil War era, this missing battleship (seen in all its glory in an abrupt, ill-defined prologue) is said to be holding a cargo of treasure, and Dirk is dead-set on finding it. Early on their journey, Dirk and Al join forces with Dr. Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), whose investigation into a mysterious plague sweeping through Africa has left her wanted for dead. If the three of them cannot find the cause of this epidemic and dodge a lot of bullets in the process, a worldwide outbreak may occur.
For 90 minutes, "Sahara" dawdles drearily along, unfocused in the story it wants to tell and never engaging the viewer in its three central characters or their relationships. These are one-dimensional figures all the way; because we don't grow to care about them, their efforts in finding the ship and solving the mystery of the plague aren't worth caring about, either. The picture picks up steam during its action-packed, 30-minute climax, if only because, for once, things seem to be happening.
Once the trio arrive at a solar energy farm in the middle of the Sahara Desert—a cover secretly holding poisonous toxins that are seeping into the water supply—there is some admitted excitement to be had. A fight to the death atop the looming solar tower is aesthetically impressive and manufactures some fleeting, if high-octane suspense. The same goes for the showdown involving a helicopter, numerous heavy-duty tanks, and a creaky cannon once Dirk, Al, and Eva inevitably come upon the lost ship. These moments of interest, however, come too late. By this point, the film has proven to be so hopelessly conventional that there is never any question as to whether the three protagonist will save the day.
Not only drab from a narrative standpoint, "Sahara" is also ugly to look at—save for a few money shots where the scope and beauty of the foreign landscape alone is sumptuous. Otherwise, the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (2004's "Along Came Polly
") so stubbornly concentrates on brown and yellow tones as to eventually feel almost colorless. This leaves most of the eye candy falling onto the shoulders of Matthew McConaughey's (2003's "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
") ruggedly fetching masculinity and Penelope Cruz's (2001's "Vanilla Sky
") disarmingly exotic beauty. As Dirk Pitt, McConaughey is convincing enough as a talented adventurer, but his role lacks soul. The same could be said of Steve Zahn (2001's "Joy Ride
"), a too often misused talent whose part as Dirk's right-hand man, Al Giordino, has a lot of screen time but no real chemistry with his co-stars. Cruz fares best as Eva Rojas, deliciously spunky and more believable as a gorgeous intellectual than Tara Reid's scientist hack-job in the recent "Alone in the Dark
" could ever dream of being. The supporting characters are throwaways, including some of the more nondescript and boring villains in a while. Delroy Lindo's (2003's "The Core
") CIA agent comes close to being a walk-on.
Amazing, how "Sahara" clocks in past the two-hour mark and, nevertheless, leaves one feeling as if nothing has happened in that time period. Trivial, shruggable, and—let's face it—as empty as a desert castaway's tummy, "Sahara" crawls in circles looking for a point and even concludes with the by-now laughable cliche of new lovebirds Dirk and Eva lounging and then frolicking on a beach. If director Breck Eisner's goal was to create a modern-day action hero out of Dirk—why else to include the "Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt Adventure" credit?—he has stumbled enormously. As written, Dirk Pitt has the personality of a dead fish and the depth of a kiddie pool, even if McConaughey blesses him with the physicality of a hunk. "Sahara" travels down been-there-done-that territory, afraid to take chances and unaware of its own tedious mediocrity.