If you just looked at the elements, the characters and plot devices of these two films side by side you’d be hard pushed to tell them apart. Yet, despite all the thematic similarities, they are completely different. Neither one is Citizen Kane (I think, I haven’t actually watched Citizen Kane yet), but one is a top example of its type, and the other is awful. One is so likeable you revel in its silliness, the other is just stupid.
To break down a few of the common elements and compare them side by side-
The beginning. In each case the film opens with a flashback incorporating an important point in America’s history. Sahara’s is a competent mini tale in its own right, as a Confederate ironclad, laden with a mysterious cargo, braves cannon fire and a blockade to put to sea and never be seen again. National Treasure‘s opener seems to involve whatever ancient culture’s costumes were available that day and lots of smashing of holes in walls as the Knights Templar amass a fortune to take to the States. (Because, naturally, the world’s wealth doesn’t belong to the peoples whose countries generate it, it’s all America’s.) There the treasure is hoarded and hidden from The English until after the war of independence. In fact, it’s almost completely forgotten, until one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence meets the hero’s great great whatever, whispers the word “Rosebud” and let’s a snowglobe fall from his dead hand. No, hold on a minute, that was Citizen Kane again, wasn’t it?
The Hero- I guess there’s more to Dirk Pitt, given his existence in literary form since 1973. Matthew McConaughey brings the one and a bit dimensional character off the page and makes him a charming ex-military good ole boy with a thing for history. Cage plays Benjamin Franklin
Pearce Gates in National Treasure- the latest in a long line of historians doomed to be haunted by the mystery of Rosebud and likely to die lonely and bitter if he can’t solve the mystery of the treasure- as an annoying savant with an accent that makes you want to cut off a bit of his tongue because it’s obviously too big for his mouth and making him slur.
The love interest- Penelope Cruz or some blandly pretty blonde with long legs? No contest, really.
The comedy sidekick- Al Giordano, like Pitt, has been around in the books for years. He’s played with just the right mix of competence, sarcasm and eye rolling oh-no-not-again! to keep from being annoying. I can’t even remember the name of National Treasure’s CS, but I did want him to die in some meaningless way so Cage could quiver his lip briefly before getting on with snogging the blonde lady.
There are other overlaps- renowned character actors in secondary roles, a long lost ship, “foreigners” (French or British) as bad guys etc. And in each case, Sahara is the superior product. It’s also, because of the books and the way it ends, set up for a series of films.
I’ll keep the summing up short- ignore National Treasure, see Sahara.