Sahara is like a ride in an adventure park. It has a video game's disclaimer - tagged, serendipitous point scoring, its "keep your finger pressed on 'fire' and you'll hit the target" logic and a rocking African soundtrack set to Western percussion. What it lacks is the gritty realism that makes movies big enough to spawn their own video gamers' club.
Sahara is the dark horse in the illustrious family of Indiana Jones, Congo, Hatari and many other flicks that catered to the American audience's postcolonial adventure dream. Sun-tanned blonds, Third-World natives telling exotic stories, and hardy white women with lilting, foreign accents. All set in an Africa or an India, and offering opportunity for some wild adventure: whether flying microlights or riding super-sleek yachts to find Eastern treasure.
Well, the trouble with Sahara was that it took off from the shoulders of giants and forgot to land again. The trouble after a genre is created, developed and standardized is that if you forget where it's coming from, you run the risk of creating an empty bubble. Indiana Jones worked because he got goofy at times and pulled that silly lopsided grin on his face when he got into an impossible situation. It worked because there were impossible situations where Jones painted himself into the corner. It worked 'cause he got dusty and gritty and often 'beaten to it' by the villains.
Sahara, on the other hand is full of crazy escapades that kind of tire you out because there is no reality to give it the tang and the twist. Mathew MConaughey (Dirk Pitt) skitters from danger to danger without once getting stuck or having to get bailed out. He is boringly superhuman, leaving no real victory for you to savor in the movie.
A member of the NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency), he is out on a chase to track down a ship that sailed from Virginia and landed somehow in the Sahara. Along the way he picks up Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz), who is a WHO doctor investigating a plague. His sidekick Al (Steve Zahn) is forever cracking jokes that rise naturally in an environment where someone has to keep up with the swashbuckling Dirk Pitt. And those jokes get very predictable, too.
At the end of the day, Pitt actually finds the ship, and a shipload of gold, and undoes a villainy scheme to pollute the world's oceans with industrial waste. And all this is interlinked with all the unpredictability that a 4-year-old would experience in his surroundings inside a playpen.
What saves the movie is that the pace never flags, and like a three night stay in a game-sanctuary, you get up every morning with new expectation even if you didn't spot any wildlife the previous day. With its adventure-in-the-sands-of-Sahara milieu already set, you look out every second for the next fall-out with the villains and the hairbreadth escape. Never mind if none of that actually comes your way, the expectation does half the trick. The adrenaline is already coursing.
Secondly, there is the unbeatably catchy soundtrack that sets the illusion of pace. Then there is the "we got 'em" look on McConoughey's face that tickles you even if it was not such a feat, really! And then there is Penelope Cruz and her accent and her daredevilry that's rather cute, if unbelievable.
Sahara is definitely worth a watch once, since movies of this genre don't come by that often, and if you neglect the storyline, you might catch yourself jumping up and down to the music, in your seat. It's like I already said: an adventure ride. Good enough for two hours, but you won't remember much of it once you are back home.