For a film in which characters are constantly gazing at off-screen objects in excited wonderment while gasping “Oh my God!,” Sahara offers up few surprising or thrilling sights. Based on Clive Cussler’s popular novel—but so altered from its original form by four screenwriters that the author has apparently disowned the movie and threatened to sue—this umpteenth variation on Indiana Jones-style swashbuckling follows treasure hunter Dirk Pitt (a bronzed, muscular Matthew McConaughey), his smartass sidekick Al Giordino (a decidedly un-Italian Steve Zahn), and spunky World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz) as they endeavor to uncover the dual mysteries of a plague spreading throughout Africa and the location of an ironclad American Civil War battleship (“The Ship of Death”) that Dirk believes is buried somewhere in the titular desert. As dry and lifeless as its sun-burnt locale, Breck Eisner’s generic action-adventure is part buddy flick, part The Da Vinci Code historical fiction, and all hackneyed nonsense, beginning with a thunderously loud Civil War sea battle before jumping to the present, where Dirk and Al (who work for William H. Macy’s marine salvage organization) trade endless sarcastic barbs while nonchalantly braving death in their quest for fame, fortune, and Eva’s affection.
Eisner (son of Disney head honcho Michael) is no better or worse than countless other studio hacks employed to churn out mindless B-grade drivel, and his title sequence—which conveys Dirk and Al’s lifelong relationship through a tour of Dirk’s photo and news clipping-lined office—is actually a pleasant example of understated visual filmmaking and expert set design. Yet almost no subsequent moment is allowed to exist without a cacophony of explosions and forced one-liners, resulting in an assaultive experience during which guns are fired, canons are shot, helicopters are blown up, and not a single one of McConaughey’s stylishly floppy hairs is mussed. Even more frustrating are the culture clash undercurrents running throughout the film, which features Africans who embrace Western materialism (Lennie James’s villainous warlord General Kazim has bullets custom-made for his historic revolver; a weak-kneed rebel leader owns an antique European sedan) and American good ol’ boys dressed in indigenous garb whose job—scored to “Sweet Home Alabama” and “We’re An American Band”—is to save the dark-skinned land from itself and Lambert Wilson’s greedy French businessman. Any fondness the filmmakers have for the continent’s natural beauty is sabotaged by their infatuation with colorful “foreignness,” and thus watching Eva gaze at poor African children with condescending pity from her SUV, it’s difficult, at least with regards to Sahara, to disagree with Kazim’s cynical assertion that “Nobody cares about Africa.”