Thursday, November 12, 2020

Reserved Seating Presents The Bomb Squad: SAHARA

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who fail to launch franchises.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: Our box office bombs series continues with 2005’s Sahara, directed by Breck Eisner (The Crazies, The Last Witch Hunter). The film is based on a novel by Clive Cussler and stars Matthew McConaughey as Dirk Pitt, a former military man who’s now an adventurer/treasure hunter/salvage expert (?) working for the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). By his side is Dirk’s best friend, Al Giordino (Steve Zahn). A bunch of boring stuff happens which sets the plot in motion. We eventually meet up with a doctor from the World Health Organization (WHO), played by Penelope Cruz. There are bad guys like a dictator (Lennie James) and a slimy executive (Lambert Wilson). McConaughey and Zahn are trying to find a sunken ship from the American Civil War. People are getting poisoned by the bad guys. Rainn Wilson, Delroy Lindo and William H. Macy show up sometimes. I don’t know. This movie defeated me. Writing a plot summary for it feels hard.

Rob: I can’t believe you were even able to do it. What is this movie?

Adam: This was my second viewing of Sahara. I saw it during its theatrical run at a concert venue that did “Brew & View” screenings of second-run movies on dates they didn’t have concerts. I remembered being miserable watching the film because I was seated at a circular table, in a stiff chair, facing the screen at an angle. When you suggested watching Sahara for the purposes of this column, I was up for it because I thought my experience watching the movie probably influenced my reaction to it. It turns out I just don’t like Sahara. I found this movie to be really boring to the point where I got relief when it went to commercials as I watched it with ads on IMDB TV. The actors do what they can. I think Matthew McConaughey is quite good as the globe-trotting treasure hunter lead and Sahara could have been a success if the movie had a more interesting story. However, the movie was a total drag. When you stack your plot with things like civil wars, dictators, the WHO, NUMA, toxins, solar detoxification plants, contamination and toxic waste you’re introducing a lot of hurdles to your movie being fun. Also, for an action-adventure movie, Sahara is pretty light on set pieces, especially in the first half which consists mostly of going to several countries for exposition dump after exposition dump.

What did you think of Sahara, Rob?
Rob: I’m in the same boat. From a studio filmmaking perspective, I can understand why something like Sahara gets green-lit: It’s a vehicle for three up-and-coming stars, and it’s right in the midst of a globetrotting rapscallion adventure renaissance kicked off by Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. On paper, it’s got laughs, thrills, romance, and excitement. Ingredients this good couldn’t possibly taste bad, right? Right! They nothing. This movie is blah. It’s medium. It’s a 40 degree day. It’s too much of an okay thing. There isn’t one particular element that I can point to as being objectively bad, and yet none of the good elements are given any room to make an impression. It’s honestly a fascinating example of why those alchemical X factors are so important when making a successful film. It’s not that McConaughey, Zahn, and Cruz are bad — it’s that none of them is Harrison Ford. It’s not that the various plotlines aren’t interesting — it’s that using them all at once makes it feel like they’re trying to squeeze an entire trilogy’s worth of adventures into one film. It’s not that any of the classic rock needle drops are bad songs — it’s that using all of them dilutes the impact of each one.

How would I fix it? I honestly don’t know. Maybe the problem is that McConaughey’s character’s name is Dirk Pitt. I’d probably start the rewrite there.

The name doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that we don’t know anything about Dirk Pitt as a person. We know what his job is and then McConaughey’s persona is supposed to do the rest of the work. He’s Adventure Man. He’s not a character yet. It’s weird that Sahara was supposed to launch a franchise of Dirk Pitt adventures (the comparison made on Wikipedia is this was supposed to be a James Bond type series), but then give us nothing to really hang onto.

I’m trying to think of some positives and all I can come up with is Steve Zahn. I liked that he was a capable backup to McConaughey and not a bumbling idiot. He’s definitely intended as comic relief first but I appreciated that he’s smart, resourceful, and brave. I felt bad for Penelope Cruz because the movie gives her very little to do. She’s meant to be “the girl” that’s there for McConaughey to save and that’s about it. It’s a bummer.
Rob: Speaking of Bond, Cruz’s role definitely strikes me as one of those parts they write for beautiful actresses as a kind of patronizing head fake toward equality. “Yes, she’s arm candy, but she’s more. She’s a doctor. She works for the World Health Organization.” That’s not characterization; it’s backstory. It only shapes her dialogue and actions in one or two scenes. It’s kind of the same as the Adventure Man problem, but it feels more insidious because it’s a female role.

I also liked Steve Zahn (because I’m a human being with a soul), and I kept thinking just how remarkably in the pocket he was for this run during the late ‘90s-early ‘00s. He found his niche, did it effortlessly for six or seven years to pay the bills, and snuck in a few interesting dramatic roles along the way. Remember Saving Silverman? I watched that on Comedy Central almost every day in high school. Is that movie good? I wonder if that movie is good.

Adam: I don’t remember, but now I want to rewatch Saving Silverman. Speaking of Jack Black movies, I rewatched Orange County a couple of years ago and was like “This movie’s amazing” (it’s probably not). All I remember about Saving Silverman is Amanda Peet. Why didn’t she become a giant movie star?
Rob: Because only one young Hollywood actress can get work at a time. Oh! You know what else Zahn is good in? Neat: The Story of Bourbon. It’s a documentary on Prime that he narrates. He does these little interstitial talking head pieces throughout, and he gets more and more tuned up as they go on. It’s pretty funny.

Anyway. Do we have anything else to really say about Sahara?

Adam: Oh no. We don’t.

Rob: we just stop, then? Is this one over?

Adam: Sorry, did you say something? I already put my jacket on and was walking out the door. We’ll be back next week with a new idea (TBD!!!) because baseball is in its offseason, so our baseball series is also on hiatus. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. The movie is like any Clive Cussler book, stuff just...happens.

    1. True. I was laughing at their nitpicks. because that's the stuff from the books. Dirk IS ACTION MAN, and his resume IS a sketch because it allowed Cussler to fill it in as he continued to write him.

      Their 1st problems is over thinking, especially the plot. It's a popcorn film made from Airport fiction... just turn your brain off and watch.

  2. I recently watched this for the first time, and, to be fair, it looks great: terrific photography, first-rate location filming, cleanly edited action, Ms. Cruz... and the commentary track is apparently full of hilarious bluster about what they'll get up to in sequels, so if you've got a large projector screen, watching the commentary for the visuals and schadenfreude alone might well be worth it. (It's absolutely bananas how the ship full of dead Confederates and their gold, and the toxic sludge plant, turn out to be both right next to each other geographically, and completely unrelated, plot-wise.)

    Anyhow, the whole thing just goes to further my suspicion that Indiana Jones-style archeological pulp adventure simply doesn't work past, say, 1950, or in times of plastic, modern guns, and computers. (The arguable exception the Robert Langdon movies, specifically because he's not a fighter - I can't recall him wielding a single firearm in the whole trilogy.) It's one thing to watch The Mummy '99, set in the 1920s, and to put one's modern sensibilities on pause to an extent, but that just doesn't work in a movie like The Mummy '17, with Tom Cruise blowing up a Iraqi town just for kicks.

  3. I actually saw this movie traveling through China after winning a weird beer-drinking contest outside the theater. As the only foreigner participating I felt like I had to represent, chugging two 40s of
    Tsingtao in like 3 minutes. Then we rode up the elevator to the 5th floor theater where we were the only three people.

    I remember that story more than I remember this movie, which just felt like Indiana Jones with a lobotomy.

    1. And that story is more interesting than the movie

    2. I wish all theaters offered that as a form of admission.

  4. Me and my wife “rented” this when we both worked at Blockbuster. Each of us fell asleep. I rewatched it a couple months ago for the first time and it took me three attempts. I kept falling asleep......I don’t know what it is, but it should have been way more entertaining.