Sahara (2005)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Matthew McConnaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, William H. Macy
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Animatics, Storyboards, Trailer

With films like "Sahara" audiences are usually notoriously split. There are those who despise these big action-laden blockbuster-style films and then there are those who grab a bag of popcorn and enjoy these films like the thrill ride they are. Most of the time, I like to apply myself to the second category. While I like films with depth, I do not have the slightest problem to simply sit back and let a movie wash over me with visuals, effects, spectacle and bombast. In fact, it is something I need every once in a while, a good fix of fun-filled mindless furious fun, and for all that it is worth, "Sahara" delivers it in spades, and on this new high definition version from Paramount Home Entertainment it's even hotter and more explosive than ever.

Based on the novel by Clive Cussler, the film tells the story of treasure hunter Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) and his friend Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) as they try to find an iron-clad ship from the American civil war. It disappeared seemingly without a trace during the last days of the war and Dirk has been able to trace the ship to Africa. When he discovers one crucial clue he convinces his boss of the NUMA – a sunken treasure recovery organization – to allow him to search for the mythical ironclad and together with all they soon find themselves caught in the middle of an African civil war and an impending plague to infect all of the world's oceans and a blood-thirsty warlord on their heels. World Health Organization doctor Eva Rojas (Penélope Cruz) joins the merry band of adventurers as they try to stop the plague and simply survive the constant assaults a on their lives to see another day. The ironclad seems all but forgotten, until…

"Sahara" is a wonderful throwback to some of the action-adventure movies of old, such as "Indiana Jones," "Romancing The Stone," "Quatermain" and so forth. It is a film that is easily digestable and has only one goal. To wow the viewer and overwhelm him with explosions and action sequences while creating a series of adventurous moments and characters in exotic locations. And it completely succeeds. It is sheer fun to watch McConnaughey and Zahn race from one run-in into the next. The two actors have an incredible chemistry that provides a lot of humor. However, the humor is never artificial or flat. Zahn's delivery is simply amazing in its honesty – no doubt a result of director Breck Eisner allow Zahn to improvise on the spot and simply riff on the lines he's been given. He's one of those guys who always have a funny remark for everything at any time and it completely shines through in his portrayal of Al.
The two of them are supplemented by a wonderful supporting cast, that includes Penélope Cruz in a high-energy performance as well, Delroy Lindo and William H. Macy, among others.

A high-production value movie, "Sahara" is one of those films that is ideal to showcase any home theater format's strengths. In his HD-DVD version you get a picture that is mesmerizing and stunning in its level of detail and richness. Razor-sharp, the transfer really plays its muscles well. Whether it's the nighttime shots or dark interiors, or the glaring, bleached moments in the desert sun, the film always manages to render an image that is highly detailed, bringing out even the most subtle textures and gradients. The colors are rich throughout, making sure the colorful costumes are equally well reproduced as the sandy colors of the Sahara or the more muted costumes of the Tuareg, for example. Black levels are incredibly deep, giving the image a solid visual depth while never losing definition or shadow detail. Easily, Sahara" is among the best high definition transfers out there and a joy to watch.

The same is true for the audio, which comes courtesy of 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus tracks in English, French and Spanish, as well as a DTS track in English. The track is powerful and extremely dynamic, just as you would expect from such a bombastic action adventure. Using surround channels frequently and aggressively the sound stage is wide and constantly active and with its deep bass extension, it makes sure that the bottom end of the spectrum is driven home with power to shake the popcorn out of your bag. Dialogues are also very clear and always understandable but it is ultimately Clint Mansell's score that benefits most from the increased bitrate of the Dolby Digital Plus tracks. Very subtle timbres and details are coming through in the instrumentation that give the score an added lively feel.

The HD-DVD also offers up a good selection of extras, including two commentary tracks. The first one features director Breck Eisner, discussing various technical aspects of the movie, while the second one also includes Matthew McConnaughey in the conversation. While both of them are very good and informative, I found the second track more enjoyable because it contains a good amount of banter and anecdotes and simply has a much more easy-going flow.

Next up is a series of featurettes covering many of the aspects about the making of the movie. Featuring interviews with the cast and crew members as well as plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, these featurettes explain how the film came together in the first place, especially since writer Clive Cussler repeatedly refused to allow film versions of the story because he never contented with the actor proposed to play Dirk Pitt. Until Matthew McConnaughey came along and made it his mission to win the novelist over. But also we get to relive sandstorms in the desert, hear about the tribulations the production had to go through in order to achieve its epic scope. Others featurettes cover the special effects and stunts on the show, and one in particular gives viewers the chance to see how the camel chase scene was shot. All in all these featurettes are well produced and give viewers a nice glimpse at the making of the film.

Also included are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by Eisner and Mcconnaughey. While they are nice, it is very clear why they were excised from the final film.

Animatics and a storyboard comparison are also included as well as the movie's theatrical trailer in high definition.

"Sahara" is a great popcorn movie. Adventurous and bombastic, furious and loud, this is a treasure hunt that is fun and highly entertaining. The HD-DVD version fully delivers with a sparkling high definition transfer that puts previous versions to utter shame as well as extras that nicely complement and round out the release. For a full-on dose of escapism, give "Sahara" a try.