Sahara is a stunning piece of work -- stunningly inept, stunningly incoherent, stunningly awful in every single way imaginable. How this didn't go direct to video or cable or airplane or bootleg is unfathomable. Actually, that's not entirely true. It gets a proper blockbuster theatrical release through Paramount Pictures because its director, Breck Eisner, is the son of former Paramount Pictures (and, till 2006, Walt Disney Company) boss Michael Eisner, who almost single-handedly demolished The Kingdom That Mickey Built. Which is not to insinuate that Daddy helped his son get the gig, since nepotism's as rare in Hollywood as gluttony, futility and complacency, but when Breck has all the directorial instincts of Donald Duck, you can't help but start doing the movie-biz math, especially when one plus one equals a big fat zero in this instance. It takes particularly good connections to get a studio to release something this woefully incompetent. Either that, or somebody's got pictures of somebody kept in a safe somewhere.
Or here's another theory: Michael got Paramount to release this heap only to make last year's National Treasure, a Disney release, look brilliant by comparison, since they're essentially the same movie -- meaning, slicked-up and dumbed-down versions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with a touch of James Bond tossed in. National Treasure bore all the noisome hallmarks of its producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, but wasn't any fun even as a guilty pleasure, which is the absolute best thing you can say about his movies. Yet compared to Sahara, it's a work of crowd-pleasing, soul-stirring genius. Of course, it's a little like asking who was nicer, Stalin or Mussolini, but you get the point.
Sahara will be known for only one thing: It's where Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz met and fell in love, though both have insisted their relationship began after filming ended -- one of those who-gives-a-shit Us Weekly tidbits publicists plant in order to generate heat for a $160 million movie that arrives in the cineplex as cold as a corpse. Oddly, after seeing the movie, you'd think it was McConaughey (as treasure hunter Dirk Pitt) and Steve Zahn (as his sidekick) who hooked up, since they have more chemistry between them than anything McConaughey can cook up with Cruz, who plays a World Health Organization doctor who keeps reminding other characters she's a World Health Organization doctor, since they don't seem to believe her. (She doesn't seem to buy it either.)
The story, based on a novel by Clive Cussler, is such a messy tangle of twists and contrivances that for a good 45 minutes, Sahara doesn't make a bit of sense -- and by the time you do figure it out, there's still 82 minutes left to go, which makes this less an entertaining tease than an outright endurance test. What's most stunning is that Eisner and his army of screenwriters actually ejected from the story some of Cussler's more ridiculous plot machinations, including a missing female aviator modeled after Amelia Earhart, a kidnapped Abraham Lincoln and the missing sarcophagus of a pharaoh who met his mummy some 2,500 years earlier. (Mind you, this information comes from the back cover of a paperback edition of Sahara, since the notion of reading Clive Cussler is about as appealing as sitting through one more movie based on his books.)
Initially the movie seems to have something to do with a Civil War-era Confederate ironclad that went missing at the end of the war, and along with it a treasure chest of gold coins. Then it's off to the African desert, where Cruz's Eva Rojas and her fellow WHO doc (Glynn Turman) are investigating a mysterious plague ravaging villages. Then it's off to Dirk and his crew, including a retired admiral played by what's-he-doing-here William H. Macy, salvaging a sunken treasure for a creepy industrialist played by Matrix Merovingian Lambert Wilson, who, at this point, doesn't need to do anything besides stand there silently to look like he's up to no good. Of course, he ain't: Wilson, in cahoots with a dictator named General Kazim (Lennie James), is operating a solar-powered nuclear-waste-disposal plant in the middle of the desert, which is poisoning the water supply via underground rivers, like they care. And did I mention the giant Civil War ship that ends up buried in the middle of the African desert?
If a movie's going to be this outrageous, this full of noise and nonsense, the least it could do is wink at us and pretend that it, too, acknowledges how ridiculous it is. But Sahara takes itself so seriously that when it tries to be funny, the laugh sticks in your throat, choking you like a sandstorm; poor Zahn, especially, stranded once more with the thankless task of riding comedy shotgun in a sinking ship. As for McConaughey and Cruz, one has to figure if a relationship can weather the making of so mighty a disaster, they're going to be together for a long, long time.