Sahara (HD-DVD) Studio: Paramount Home Video Rated: PG13 (action violence) Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 HD Encoding: 1080p HD Video Codec: VC-1 Audio: English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital Plus 5.1; English DTS 5.1 Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; English SDH Time: 123 minutes Disc Format: 1 SS/SL HD-DVD Case Style: Keep case Theatrical Release Date: 2005 DVD Release Date: July 25, 2006 Movie Review Note: As I move into more HD-DVD reviews, I am cutting back on the length of my comments on the movie itself to deal more with the technical aspects of this new format. This will be done specifically on the catalog titles provided by Paramount. When they begin releasing titles day and date, I will spend more of the review on the merits (or lack thereof) of the title. While it will never be compared to Lawrence of Arabia, except perhaps as its stupid and fairly uncreative child, Sahara is mediocre popcorn cinema. Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is in search of a lost Civil War battleship said to contain a lost cache of gold. He and his buddy, Al Giordino (Steven Zahn), work for Admiral Jim Sandecker (William H. Macy) excavating lost sea treasure. When Dirk gets a tip the “Ship of Death” from the Civil War can be found, he and Al go off on the hunt. Penelope Cruz plays Eva, a World Health Organization worker who is investigating an outbreak of a mysterious plague in Africa. Dirk winds up saving Eva from vicious locals, thus combining their two seemingly unrelated stories. Dirk and Eva’s hunts turn out to have more in common than either one of them initially expected, and the quest turns out to be the adventure of a lifetime. Sahara is very light on plot, and heavy on explosions and action. The actors deliver their comic book dialogue with some gusto, but no one has to dig too deep for this picture. Story and acting aside, Sahara has some outstanding action and chase sequences that are the perfect stuff for our home theaters. Video: Note: I am watching this title using a Marantz VP 12-S4 DLP projector, which has a native resolution of 720p. Thus, the HD-DVD discs are being displayed in 1080i for evaluation purposes. I am using a Toshiba HD-A1 for a player and utilizing the HDMI capabilities of both units. The VC-1 encoded picture on this HD-DVD is simply outstanding. It has a beautiful, film like quality that is absent on the original, SD DVD release, making the SD DVD look like what it is: a video. It is correctly framed at 2.35:1. The picture is smoother with enhanced fine detail. Costumes and sets that seem smeared in the SD release now have definition; you are able to make out fabric details, not just wrinkles and folds. Many shots look three-dimensional at times. There are beautiful distinctions in colors of the dirty walls in the village at the beginning of the picture when Eva finds her first afflicted patient. This is also evident at the party at the unveiling of sarcophagus of King Batiste: all of the colors in the costumes, the sets and the food are distinct and natural. Details on the actors (particularly their hair) are noticeable. The picture was shot with somewhat de-saturated colors, so the colors and skin tones, while accurate, tend to look faded (the look of the picture is discussed in one of the documentaries). Surprisingly, I noticed some minor edge enhancement in Chapter 7 when you see the local Africans praying against a sunset, followed by Dirk and Al on the camels. Black levels are deep and show good shadow delineation. Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack is attained by a 5.1 analog connection. The DTS track that was on the Region 3 release has been put on this release, and what a track it is! I had to drop the volume on my receiver by several notches so as not to harm the speakers in the opening Civil War sequence. After that, I switched back to the Dolby Digital Plus (DD+) track. Since the DD+ format is relatively new, I will use this track during initial evaluations on my HD-DVD reviews. Once the feature was over, I went back and spot compared the two tracks. The DD+, while it has exceptional fidelity, clarity and punch, lacked the expansiveness and presence that the DTS track provided. I went back and forth several times on which I liked better, but I came up with a draw: both tracks are excellent, but for different reasons. Technically, the DD+ track is accurate in its reproduction of the soundtrack, but the DTS is more enveloping and warm. Bass levels are excellent in DD+, and they deliver a great punch, but the bass in DTS is richer and more enveloping. The classic rock songs lack deep bass but they are very clear in the mids and highs. The more recent songs or those of more recent vintage have a more wide-ranging sound palette. ADR was apparent in the DD+ track and I would attribute this to the enhancements of the format. I also noticed a very minor lip sync issue in various parts of the first third of the movie, and I don’t know if it was a result of poor ADR or an error in the disc itself. I will be interested to see if other viewers notice a similar issue. Bonus Material: With the advent of HD-DVD, we are faced with several different audio and video codecs being used on each disc. Due to this, I have begun adding the encoding details as part of the explanation of bonus features when applicable and relevant. Commentary by Director Breck Eisner: Eisner gives a very good and detailed commentary where he discusses all aspects of the picture. Well worth the time. Commentary by Directory Breck Eisner and Actor/ Director Matthew McConaughey: Eisner shifts gears on this one to include more stories that involve Mc Conaughey and the actors. Across the Sands of Sahara (14:59) (MPEG2, 4x3, DD+): A discussion of the problems the production experienced on the set in Morocco, as well as why McConaughey optioned this story. The cast, producers, and director discuss their individual roles in the picture. Visualizing Sahara (20.06) (MPEG2, 4x3, DD+): A very interesting discussion about how the production team put together the look of the film, including aspect ratio, filters, costuming, storyboarding, pre-visualization, sets and set building, and stunts. Cast and Crew Wrap Film (9:45) (MPEG2, 4x3, DD+): a fun clip of numerous members of the production running down stats from the size of the productions. There is also a ton of behind the scenes video clips edited together to give you an idea of what it was like to be on set. Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Breck Eisner and Matthew McConaughey (4:39) (MPEG2, 16x9, DD+): there are four deleted scenes lasting about a minute each: Kitty Mannock’s Crash: This scene shows the crash of the plane that Dirk and Al eventually commandeer for their own use. Finding Kitty Mannock’s Plane: A little more exposition on the pilot of the plane. The Long Kiss: Dirk kisses Eva. Al jokes. Oceanographers Dying in the Desert: a different take on they boys dragging the truck bed. This scene finally shows some impact on them as they cross the hot desert. Theatrical Trailer (VC-1, 1.85:1, DD+): This is interesting: Paramount presents the theatrical trailer in 1.85:1 while the picture was shot at 2.35:1. The picture, while not as clear and dirt free as the feature itself, is still nice. The trailer exhibits a richer saturation level than the picture itself. Those of you who are students of marketing should have fun with this one. This is also the longest I have ever commented on a theatrical trailer! The following special features are from a Best Buy exclusive disc that came out with the original SD release, from what I understand: Behind the Scenes of the Camel Chase Sequence (5:00) (MPEG2, 4x3, DD+) Animatics of the opening scene (4:16) and the train sequence (4:38) (MPEG2, 4x3, DD+): Storyboards of those scenes with a temporary soundtrack. Storyboard Comparisons: Gun Fight at the Well (2:06), Finding the Iron Clad (1:49), Dirk Rescues Eva on the Beach (1:53) (MPEG2, 4x3, DD+): Comparisons between the storyboards and the finished scenes. Other notes on this HD-DVD edition: - The A and B buttons that can be utilized on some HD-DVD titles do not appear to have any function on this title. However, if you press the menu button during the feature, it brings up the menu items over the picture. Same difference, I guess. - I use the on-screen display function extensively when doing reviews for time markers and audio and video formatting. This disc would disable several remote functions until I turned off the on-screen display. I have not noticed this issue on the HD discs from Warner’s or Universal. Conclusions: While not a great movie, Sahara is one heck of an HD-DVD. The disc features an outstanding audio and video onslaught that will show off your system. Both audio tracks have merits that should generate a debate on which is better, but neither will leave you disappointed. We are also provided with a great set of extras that add to the package.