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‘Sahara’ Aims at Mind of a Sand Flea

Escapism worked better in a huge world where you were fine to know squat about global politics.

Dorothy Woodend 22 Apr

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Not so long ago in Hollywood, the entire world existed to be plundered, all its people variously blown to bits -- except for the hot sexy ones (they could stay and hump with the hero.) In these politically correct times, those days are supposedly gone.

But you wouldn't know it from watching Sahara.

Sahara is the film adaptation of Clive Cussler's book of the same title. It concerns a civil war, an armoured ship, a lost cache of gold, evil African warlords, French business men, guns, explosions, the end of the world, and a good old fashioned Yankee Doodle Dandy in the form of one Dirk Pitt. Pitt is of course, the titular hero, meaning he gets all the tits.

Women love him, literally hurling their panties in the air the whenever he arrives, and men want to be him. He has a collection of cool antique cars and a devil-may-care grin. His narrow escapes from assorted scrapes succeed through any number of ridiculous stunts. He should come with a tattoo on his copper brow that says, "Do not try this at home." In short, he is the perfect action hero. Brave, funny, and self-deprecating, in Cussler's stories he was Indiana Jones before there was such a thing. (The first Dirk Pitt book was published in 1973, long before Indy and his trademark fedora made the scene.)

Here, Pitt is played by Matthew McConaughey, he of the naked bongo drum playing, who has teeth so blinding white and straight that American dentistry should pay him something. He sinks these perfect chompers into the role and runs about doing derring-do all over the place. Of course, every hero needs a sassy sidekick and Steve Zahn (as Al Giordino) does a fine job. He is Jerry Lewis to McConaughey's Dean Martin and their good natured banter wafts easily along, keeping everything swinging and silly even when they are stranded in the middle of the Sahara. What is it about the desert that brings out the Borscht belt comedian in everyone? The great killing wasteland, site of adventures from Lawrence of Arabia to Ishtar, seems to inspire epic and silliness in equal measure.

Dinosaur Dirk Pitt

It's all by the book, the Cussler book, and fans, of which he has apparently 125 million, will recognize the signature moments, although serious aficionados will gripe about the liberties taken and even Mr. Cussler has launched a lawsuit against the film's producers over final script approval. Fitting a Cussler book into a two hour film would need a pile driver. These are dense books. Not in the intellectual sense of the word. I mean literally heavy: you could knock someone unconscious with one.

The film does its best to cram it all in, opening with two WHO doctors investigating a mysterious African plague. Before you picture Pete Townsend and Rodger Daltrey intrepidly tracking down the virus, the doctors are actually from the World Health Organization and are played by Penelope Cruz and Glynn Turman. As the noble love interest, Cruz tries with all the feeble strength in her tiny limbs to throw herself into the action. Is that a rocket in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me? The answer is yes to both questions.

In short order, the plucky doc is attacked by brigands, rescued by Dirk Pitt, who is conveniently nearby with no clothes on. Pitt takes her back to his Pitt stop where he and his tiny pal Al work for NUMA (The National Underwater and Marine Agency). Dirk and Al, with the doctors along for the ride, head into the middle of an African civil war. Soon enough they are on the run from warlord tanks, taken in by rebel forces, discover the source of the mysterious plague, shoot the shit out of everything that moves, and still finish in time for a little sex on the beach. Although not with each other unfortunately.

Escapism of this variety is old fashioned and as such it requires a certain naivete. Anyone with even the slightest awareness of global politics will cringe at dialogue like "No one cares about Africa" and the notion that good old fashioned American cunning will always triumph, no matter how dire the circumstances. So at what point does it become impolitic to write stories like those of Dinosaur Dirk Pitt? Don't worry about the objectification of women, don't be concerned by jingoist politics, just remember the twelve steps of AA (that's action/adventure). Shoot, fight, kill, explode, destroy but most of all have fun while doing it.

Politics of escapism

Even if the tone is purposefully retro, there is no escaping the politics of escapism. The genre just won't quite work the way it used to. This is probably due to a number of different things, but some of it may have to do with the sense that the world is not quite as large as it once was. Escapism implies actually escaping from where you are to someplace else, whether that be a far flung locale, or an imaginary place within the pages of a book. Cussler's books require foreign climes as much as they do antique cars, tough men, and utterly preposterous plots. The deepest jungle, the most barren desert, the darkest depths of the ocean -- the premise is that good old Yankee ingenuity will prevail without fail in every corner of the globe. Of course the people who actually live in the furthest corners of the globe may not agree.

The success of Sahara will probably spawn sequels. There are plenty more Dirk Pitt adventures yet to be adapted to the big screen. Another explorer, one Indiana Jones, is also set to return. The fourth film in the series, starring the increasingly aged Harrison Ford is planned for release in the summer of 2007. An even more suspect escapist release from reality is No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah in which Ford plays General Jim Mattis, who led the US assault on Fallujah. That desert adventure wasn't much fun for anyone.

I remember being taken to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a child and upon leaving the theatre, I said "What a cool movie!" only to be told by my parents, "Did you how many people they killed, how violent it was, what about the geopolitics of expansionism and neocolonialism, blah blah blah?" It all went flying over my murderous little mind. All that was evident to me is that adults can wreck anything.

Now that I'm a film critic, if my job is to fill in for the missing parental voice, I wonder how much good it does to lecture. Sometimes we all desire, nay need, to simply shut off our brains, and have fun. Just remember to turn your brain back on afterwards, in case you bump into something.

Dorothy Woodend reviews film for The Tyee on Fridays.  [Tyee]

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