Sahara is based on Clive Cussler’s 1992 novel of the same name. If you’ve ever read any of the author’s Dirk Pitt series, you’ll know that they read like the author’s private (and slightly uncomfortable) daydreams, complete with a shameless plug for NUMA, the diving association that Cussler founded and chaired for many years. Still, despite the source material’s status as the author’s personal fantasy, there’s plenty of both action and adventure, which lends itself perfectly to the big screen.
Sahara was a well-documented box office bomb, and that can’t be denied. The film’s budget was doubled part-way through production, and it ultimately managed to recoup roughly half of its overall expenses, making losses of approximately $105 million according to the financial executive assigned to the film.
In fiscal terms, that’s what is referred to as ‘yikes’.
Money aside, though, there were many other issues that plagued production. First there’s the leaked documents that showed money had been put aside to bribe the Moroccan government (highly illegal). Then, there’s the massive, $100 million lawsuit that went back and forth between Cussler and the film’s producer in the years following the film’s release. There’s also the revolving door of screenwriters and producers that were alienated by Cussler, and evidence that production benefited from outlandishly cheap Moroccan labour.
That only covers the bare bones of Sahara‘s issues, but it sets an adequate picture for the insurmountable odds the film faced.
With all that said, it’s actually a pretty decent film. The characters (particularly protagonist Dirk Pitt) are outlandishly cheesy, but McConaughey’s charm more than masks any ridiculousness. In fact – considering this was pre-McConaissance, when the world realised just how talented the actor is – McConaughey’s performance is what makes the film, tapping into the all-important ground somewhere between Average Joe and James Bond. His co-stars Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz both delivered solid supporting performances, with Zahn proving the perfect comic foil to McConaughey’s effortless cool, and there’s a chemistry between the two that makes them entirely believable as lifelong best friends.
Sahara boasts a number of action sequences that rivals (or surpasses, in some cases) any other action movie out there, but it never feels too forced. In fact, the film’s plot – again, while being entirely preposterous – feels original and organic, with a genuine element of adventure entwined with a pretty average high-stakes action-movie subplot (or is the impending environmental disaster the main plot, with the treasure hunting taking the back seat? I honestly have no idea).
Sahara also boasts a soundtrack compiled of early ’70s classic rock, which also helps to cultivate a more relatable atmosphere, something which also helps set the film apart from its contemporaries in the action genre.
It’s also worth noting that there are a number of shots that make extensive use of CGI (in order to render the solar plant), and they all hold up remarkably well, considering well over a decade has passed since the film’s release. This, combined with the studio’s willingness to essentially throw money at the project, makes for a visually impressive finished product.
All in all, Sahara is a surprisingly competent action-adventure flick with several sound performances and an entertaining story. It lives and dies on its ambition: its swollen budget made for solid effects and memorable set pieces, but it also doomed it to fail at the box office, which in turn put the film’s planned sequels out to pasture.
Summary: It’s cheesy, it’s fun, and it’s surprisingly well-made. Despite its many issues behind the scenes, Sahara is a competent film that inspires an appropriate sense of adventure. This one deserves to sit firmly in the ‘guilty pleasure’ category.