SAHARA - Blu-ray review

A fun film and a great Blu-ray package make for a good early release by Paramount as they continue to support both high definition formats


Texas native Matthew McConaughey portrays diver / explorer Dirk Pitt in the film "Sahara," a character driven to find a Civil War era dreadnaught named the "Texas" which has miraculously found a resting place in Africa. Along with the always affable Steve Zahn, the lovely Penelope Cruz and a personal favorite of mine, William H. Macy, "Sahara" is a fun summer adventure film that may not have the best script and best dialogue, but makes up for its storytelling and plot shortcomings with very likeable characters and a torrid pace that unfolds under the scorching hot sun roasting the picturesque African landscape.

"Sahara" finds childhood friends Dirk Pitt (McConaughey) and Al Giordina (Zahn) working for an exploration ship in an organization known as NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency). Dirk and Al have done everything, including stints as Navy Seals together. Retired Admiral Jim Sandecker (Macy) runs the show and employs the two as his lead treasure hunters. While in Africa to recover a valuable sarcophagus from its watery grave, Dirk is given a clue as to the location of his holy grail, a Civil War battleship, the "Texas." There is no way that Dirk can not check out this tip. Above anything else, he wants to uncover the mystery of how the Texas made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and found its fate on the Niger River. He is given seventy-two hours and the Admiral's private yacht to navigate the river and see if his lead takes him to the old ironclad.

The Texas isn't the only adventure awaiting Dirk. World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Cruz) and Dr. Frank Hopper (Glynn Turman) have uncovered a nasty plague that is quickly killing its victims and quickly spreading. They need transportation upriver to uncover the source of the disease and after a few contacts and circumstances tie them together, Dirk agrees to transport the WHO doctors to a port town that is on the way to their destination. Unfortunately, there are some who do not want the disease stopped and while Dirk continues to search for his "Ship of Death," those that want the pretty doctor to discontinue her attempts at thwarting the plague are searching for Dirk and friends. Looking for the truth behind the mysterious and deadly outbreak puts them in the middle of an ugly Civil War and finds them uncovering two unusual discoveries in the West African desert.

I suppose if you took "The Mummy" and "Black Hawk Down" and mixed them in a blender, then "Sahara" is what you would get. Sure, there would be no undead or godlike villains. The Army Rangers and Delta Force aren't included in this recipe either, but you do find an archeological adventure in the middle of an African Civil War with modern weapons of military might and a brave and inventive adventurer that is good with both a fun and a fist. The plot relies heavily on coincidence and convenience to get from Point A to Point B. In the middle of a large and open desert, they continually stumble upon the exact spot they need to find. Dirk finds himself at the right spot, at the right time all of the time. The character does not necessarily work for his discoveries in the film, they just happen to fall in his lap. Dirk and Al are also near immortal in their ability to escape danger and come out squeaky clean after any brush with trouble. Exploding shells and armor-piercing bullets riddle everything around them with holes, but they get away with hardly a scratch. Believability is not something required in a ‘Popcorn Film' and a good separation from reality is what makes cinematic escapism a form of entertainment, but sometimes you can take it too far.

The greatest strength of "Sahara" is its cast. Matthew McConaughey was at one time expected to become one of Hollywood's biggest leading men. It has taken him quite a while to start living up to expectations and his best successes have come in romantic comedies, but with making up for the horrendous "Reign of Fire," his roles in "U-571" and "Sahara," finds McConaughey starting to prove he is bankable in action films. Steve Zahn always makes me laugh. Whether it be with threats of cutting children up with chainsaws in "Happy Texas" or as the unfortunate criminal in "Out of Sight," Zahn is an underused and underrated actor that thrives on scene-stealing from his bigger named counterparts. William H. Macy is one of the finest character actors in Hollywood. His roles as The Shoveller in "Mystery Men" and as Little Bill in "Boogie Nights" are great comedic performances. His performances in "Seabiscuit," "Pleasantville" and "Focus" are just a few examples of how great he can be in more dramatic parts. I cannot say I've ever been impressed with Penelope Cruz, but she is certainly a pretty young lady. Along with a strong supporting cast that includes Rainn Wilson, Delroy Lindo and Jude Akuwidike, "Sahara" does not lack in the acting department.

Another strength of "Sahara" is its wonderful visuals. One would expect the Sahara desert to be long and boring dunes where rolling sand is the only action involved on camera. This could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are certainly rolling sand dunes and there are scenes where all you see is the sand. The lighting and cinematography do wonders for the sand and it always makes for lovely scenery. The perfect blue sky wonderfully contrasts to the pure tan sand. There are some rather nice vistas comprised of lively greens and meandering rivers. "Sahara" is a visually stunning film that has plenty of good action scenes to populate its scenery and deliver an entertaining film.

Regardless of its faults and thanks to its fine cast and wonderful visuals, "Sahara" is was a treat to watch. I had avoided the film during both its theatrical release and its subsequent home video release on DVD. I think if the film would have wound up in the $6.99 sales bin at the local big chain electronics store I would've purchased it, but otherwise I would have continually ignored it. After initially screening the film for my HD-DVD review, I was glad I finally sat down and watched the movie. Sitting down and experiencing it again on Blu-ray was just as entertaining. It is a good West African escape for two hours. This isn't a film you would sit down and expect to be moved emotionally by its story, but you can certainly expect to sit down and have a good time.

"Sahara" was one of the first HD-DVD releases I had reviewed from Paramount. That film had impressed me greatly and though I may not review the picture quality as high now as I did back then because I am far more accustomed to high definition than I was then and that wonderment is slowly subsiding, I still think it is an impressive looking film. It is one of the better transfers I have seen from Paramount. The 1080p transfer is framed in a 2.35:1 letterboxing and mastered with MPEG-2 compression. Comparing the Blu-ray release to the HD-DVD release shows that the Paramount VC-1 transfers on HD-DVD are still slightly superior to the Paramount MPEG-2 transfers on Blu-ray. The releases are visually similar, but the HD-DVD does contain a slightly better level of detail and the Blu-ray contains a few moments of edge shimmering that was not present on the HD-DVD release. The difference is not tremendous, but with direct A-B comparisons through both component and HDMI connections, the HD-DVD nosed out this Blu-ray release.

As I mentioned in the main body of my review, one of the strengths of "Sahara" is its great cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. The film takes place on either water or sand - two complete opposites. The water ranges from a gorgeous turquoise color to a muddy brown that is far more drab looking than the limitless sands. The sand is photographed in a way that it is always pleasing to look at and never gets dull. The sky is a perfect hue of light blue. Colors jump out of the screen with this incredible transfer and combined with the fine level of detail, "Sahara" feels almost like you could touch it. This is a beautifully shot film and it is brought to life wonderfully by a nice Blu-ray disc.

Paramount includes four soundtracks with "Sahara." The most notable and important is the English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track. The English 5.1 DTS mix is impressive as well, but the Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack is by far the preferential way to experience the film. French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks are included as well. "Sahara" is a film that perfectly balances scenes where environmental sounds bring out the beauty of the African landscape and scenes where a very aggressive soundtrack takes hold of the audience's ear canals with a full-on assault of the senses. During the noisy action sequences, "Sahara" fully utilizes all six channels. The front three channels pound with great fervor to bring the gunfire and other sound effects to full life. The center does an admirable job of delivering dialogue, even in the noisiest moments. The rear channels are full of sound as well and rival even the front channels in some scenes. The .1 LFE subwoofer loves to pound home the explosions and powder explosions of the guns. The audio portion of this film perfectly matches the strong visuals to deliver a home theater tour-de-force. The HD-DVD and Blu-ray stack up identically in the sound department.

"Sahara" contains the full arsenal of bonus features that were included previously on the DVD and HD-DVD versions. This includes two commentary tracks that bring the total number of soundtracks to a whopping six. The first Commentary by Director Breck Eisner is a very informative track that details the making of the picture. Eisner provides a great deal of information on the film and is never dull to listen to. There are a few moments where he gets a bit silent, but usually rebounds with something interesting. The second Commentary by Directory Breck Eisner and Actor/Executive Producer Matthew McConaughey is perhaps a more ‘fun' commentary track to listen to, and the two men appear to be genuinely good friends that had a great time recording the track together, but does not deliver much new information over what the first track did. It was nice sitting back and listening to the two ‘catch up on old times' and this commentary track is never dull.

Pressing the ‘Menu' key brings up a nice little overlay of a desert landscape. From here you can choose ‘Pause,' ‘Settings,' ‘Scenes,' ‘Commentaries' and ‘Home.' You have to go home to view the rest of the bonus materials. The Extras menu allows you to select the commentary tracks as well as the rest of the materials. Across the Sands of Sahara is the first making of documentary. It runs for fifteen minutes and focuses the difficulties, benefits and work required to shoot in Morocco. One hundred and forty degree weather, sandstorms, floods and locusts plagued the production. Visualizing the Sahara is the second part of the three part documentary and its twenty minutes of fame covers storyboarding and the shooting of the film. McConaughey and others return to this supplement and continue to deliver a nice wealth of information. Cast and Crew Wrap Film sounds like a boring title, but the ten minute documentary features candid moments with the cast and crew and their efforts in filming the picture.

I love extras that involve outtakes or deleted scenes. "Sahara" provides some Deleted Scenes (With Optional Commentary by Breck Eisner and Matthew McConaughey). The scenes in question are "Kitty Mannock's Crash," "Finding Kitty Mannack's Plane," "The Long Kiss' and "Oceanographers Dying in the Desert." You can play them individually or with a ‘Play All' selection. The complete running time is less than five minutes. The scenes really do not add anything additional to the picture and were best left on the cutting room floor, but are nice little extras to be found on the disc.

A few additional tidbits complete the Extras section. Camel Chase is a five minute look at working with camels and filming the chase scene. Short, but sweet. Animatics includes the animatic sequences for the "Opening Scene" and the "Train Jump." Running nine minutes, the animated storyboards feature both sound effects and a musical score. Storyboard Comparisons are provided for "Gun Fight at the Well," "Finding the Iron Clad" and "Dirk Rescues Eva on the Beach." These three two minutes sequences show the storyboards above the actual film clip with a desert backdrop. Though not as visually appealing as the animatics, these give a nice comparison as to how the final product differed from how it was laid out through the storyboard artist. A Theatrical Trailer is provided in full high-definition. It looks stunning and I cannot wait until more supplements are provided in glorious HD. The Paramount HD preview is also selectable from the Extras menu.

Closing Thoughts:
"Sahara" is a fun action film. Executive Producer / Star Matthew McConaughey discovered the character through reading books in which the film is based. He secured the rights and brought Dirk Pitt to the big screen. I held out on watching the film because it didn't appeal to me through the television spots and theatrical trailers I witnessed. Well, Paramount has delivered the character of Dirk Pitt to the High Definition Screen and enabled me to finally sit down and watch the movie. I was not particularly excited by the storytelling aspect of the film, but I thoroughly enjoyed William H. Macy, Steve Zahn and Matthew McConaughey and the characters they portrayed. The film was a pleasure sight for the eyes and is a solid entry for the Blu-ray format. The action was exciting and allowed for great sound effects. Technically speaking, this is a great disc. Paramount has also included a number of supplemental features, including some features that do not appear on the list for the standard definition release (They are either new or Easter Eggs.) A fun film and a great Blu-ray package make for a good early release by Paramount as they continue to support both high definition formats.


Film Value