SAHARA collapsed of thirst in the pitiless pox-office desert of 2005, losing enough money to be ranked as one of the greatest flops ever. It was the second go at filming one of author Clive Cussler’s ‘Dirk Pitt’ adventure novels. Twenty-five years had elapsed since the first attempt was launched, Raise The Titanic, which infamously sank like iron, grossing $7,000,000 in 1980 against a $40,000,000 cost. As of 2018, thirteen years have passed without another Cussler-cursed fiasco. *
Wreck & treasure recovery expert and all-round wacky adventurer ‘Dirk Pitt’ (Matthew McConaughey) and his joker pals (Steve Zahn, Rainn Wilson) look for a Civil War ironclad that they think somehow ended up the Niger river in Africa. Trouble is there is another, modern civil war raging in the Confederate vessel’s supposed location. Backed by 70s party rock tunes on the soundtrack, the dudes freewheeling paths cross with a WHO doctor (Penelope Cruz) investigating a disease outbreak in Mali. Enter a slimy environmental polluter (Lambert Wilson), a corrupt warlord (are there honest ones?), Tuareg rebels, and the most unlikely action scenes since you played in your own sandbox as a kid.
The movie works fine as a lark for kids, but its juvenile mayhem and comic book illogic soon get to be a chore for anyone over twelve. It starts out okay, gets progressively daft, collapses into full-on idiocy. The leading man and Zahn click buddy chemistry, and the star also had it cookin with Ms. Cruz offscreen, as they were an item for a year afterwards. In the flick itself, she’s wasted; other than her body, she barely seems present (I…uh, guess you had to be there). Some will have reservations about the Use-a-Real-War-torn-African-Nation-Wracked-by-Disease-for-Lighthearted-Adventure plotline.
One of the legion of fans of the Cussler character, McConaughey, 33 here, was after the part and project for seven years and also acted as one of the Executive Producers: the undertaking had twenty people credited as producers of one stripe or another. Four credited writers did the adaptation, six more toiled without recognition. Too many chefs, too much of everything, too little to justify it. It may not have been the keenest top-down decision to give direction reins to first-timer Breck Eisner, coincidentally (sure) the son of industry power broker Michael Eisner. Whether it was star hubris, boss-man ineptitude, wholesale fiddling or just a leaky script that failed to sail, the film can’t find the right tone, finally just banging on flat notes, loudly. It might not be so irksome (there are some good aspects—it looks great) had it not cost so much, wasted so much and delivered so little.
$160,000,000 was spent on production, then another $81,800,000 on prints and marketing—$241,800,000. Worldwide box-office came to $119,300,000, a goodly sum by any standards, but swallowed in the sands of the Sahara accounting nightmare.
Best feature is Seamus McGarvey’s excellent cinematography of some striking locations in Morocco and Spain. There’s a decent score from Clint Mansell, and Costume Designer Anna Sheppard worked admirably to help evoke correct regional look. With William H. Macy (slumming), Lennie James, Glynn Turman, Delroy Lindo (poorly used), Paulin Fudouop. 124 minutes.
* Cussler’s dozens of outlandish books have a huge following. I have nothing against manly adventure novels—I love Wilbur Smith and Ken Follett, like Jack Higgins and Nelson DeMille, can deal with Tom Clancy. Tried Cussler and gave up. If you were/are into the realm of ‘Doc Savage’, then Clive might be your fix. To each…
‘Ol Clive and the youngblood producers counter-sued each other for a decade, each party blaming the other for the debacle. The detailed production excesses are the stuff of legend. The resilient McConaughey bounced back for the long haul: people either liked him from the get-go, thanks to Dazed And Confused (I do), or can’t/simply refuse to stomach him, no matter what or how well the guy does. It’s a chemistry issue. Sahara isn’t the vehicle to win over the latter. Zahn is woefully under-appreciated (see his fine work in Rescue Dawn). Smart, funny, sexy Cruz, 29 in this gig, recovered like a champ and went on to better projects and marrying Javier Bardem: by all accounts she’s a class act. As to director Eisner—who?