If you have Showtime, you know the basics of Stargate. But just in case you don’t…After a brief prologue set in 8,000 B.c., we open in 1928. A team of archeologists working in Egypt uncover huge burial stones, ornately-carved with untranslatable hieroglyphs. And under the stones, they find something even more ornate and interesting…
Fast forwarding to the ’90s, we meet Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader), who holds a few…unpopular theories regarding the Great Pyramid of Giza, mostly concerning how the Pharaohs of the fourth dynasty did not and could not possibly have built it. This thesis is bold enough to win Dr. Jackson the ostracism of his peers. Want to meet a close-minded person? Talk to a scientist. Thankfully, before he’s tossed into the rainy, New York streets, Dr. Jackson gets a super-secret job offer from the Air Force: fly out to NORAD and translate a bunch of untranslatable hieroglyphs someone apparently carved into a gigantic, 10,000 year-old burial stone, discovered in Egypt back in the 20s.
It takes him awhile, but, eventually, Dr. Jackson (who will be your Scientist for the remainder of the picture) discovers the “hieroglyphs” are actually constellations, with a group of seven in the center of the burial stones forming a sort of galactic address. His work finished, the Air Force is kind enough to clue Jackson in about just what he’s been working on. To no one’s surprise (at least, not in the audience), it’s the titular Stargate: a relic made of unknown metals no one has been able to figure out until now. With Jackson’s help, the military at last unlocks this ‘gate, discovering it’s no less than a portal to another world on the far side of the known universe. Taking the next logical step, the military sends in a team headed by Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell), who will be our General for the remainder of the picture.
With Jackson along for the ride, Our Heroes emerge on a world with three moons, endless deserts and (surprise) an exact replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza…right down to its complete lack of any written inscriptions…much less the handy Galactic Address Book that accompanied Earth’s ‘gate. Forced to wander the wastes in search of other structures, the team also discovers an entire civilization of human serfs, living in Bronze Age conditions and speaking a language Jackson can’t even begin to understand.
After all this, who’s surprised when the gods of Ancient Egypt show up in a titanic, pyramid-shaped vessel that lands right on top of the Stargate (prefiguring Independence Day), blocking Our Heroes only exit? According to Stargate, the various Egyptian belief systems, the basis for all the grandeur and splendor that was their ancient culture, were the result of enslavement by a technologically-advanced alien intelligence. The intelligence possessed a human body (Jaye Davidson’s, to be exact) and appointed itself ruler of all Egypt, using the Stargate as a quick slave labor transportation system. The people, being smart, bowed down before this alien and worshiping him as Ra, the Sun God and One true God of an intergalactic Egypt…
Ra proves non-too-happy upon learning of Earth’s ‘gate’s grand reopening. Having ruled The People with a Bronze Age tyrant’s hand for the last ten thousand-plus years, Ra’s not about to let interlopers (who disgrace his symbol – the All-Seeing Eye – by wearing it around their necks on a gold necklace, of all the fucking things) monkey-wrench things. Kidnapping Daniel and Colonel O’Neil, Ra also confiscates all the Earthling’s stuff…including that nuclear bomb O’Neil brought through the ‘gate on special order from the higher-ups. Meant to annihilate any potential threats, Ra plans to send The Bomb back to Earth, with a complementary shipment of that glorious, unknown mineral the ‘gate’s made out of… that’ll apparently increase The Bomb’s destructive force “a thousand-fold.”
Little does Ra known, it’s already too late. Thanks to a sandstorm (probably kicked up by Ra’s own landing) the natives have already played host to Daniel and O’Neil, allowing the Earthlings to spread all kinds of dangerous knowledge around. Like how reading and writing continued to evolve on the world Ra didn’t hold in his gold-encrusted hand. Or how the people of Earth overthrew Ra’s rule sometime in the distant past, and how Ra’s no kind of God at all…little more than a twenty-year-old underwear model deluded enough to believe heroin-chic is still cool. The Head Man of this little settlement (played well by bad movie vet Erick Avari), in turn, shares his daughter, Sha’uri (Mili Avital), with Daniel. Sha’uri, in her turn, shares the basic vowel structure of her language with Dr. Action Jackson…along with (it’s implied) a little something-something to warm up those long, desert nights. Will these be the seeds of populist revolt against the tyrannical technology of the gods? Will Colonel O’Neil get some closure of the death of his son and learn to love guns again?
Not a bad flick, as sci-fi pictures go. As Captain Kirk observed, anyone can look like a god as long as you show off your cool stuff to a people primitive enough to mistake it for magic. And while Stargate isn’t very archeologically sound (if aliens had come to Earth in Egypt’s infancy, I fully believe they’d still be here) it’ll at least give you a fun ride for two hours and ten minutes. With high production values and great cinematography (thank you Karl Walter Lindenlaub) the makers of Stargate create a sweeping, epic-sized desert planet, something that hasn’t been done right since Dune (and wasn’t really done right even then). From the squalor of the slave city to the high grandeur of Ra’s bedroom everything here is intricate and well-designed. Add to that Emmerich’s camera, and the broad, sweeping shots of it all he likes so much, and you’ve got a damn pretty movie, all things considered.
As I’ve remarked previously, Emmerich knows how to direct an action scene without turning the result into a seizure-inducing vomitorium. Despite plenty of action, Stargate is decidedly not a “bang-bang, shoot-shoot” fest, unlike Emmerich’s subsequent films and almost every other movie released in 1994.
Despite being the big-budget equivalent of several original Star Trek episodes, Stargate is certainly the most-original film in the Centropolis Entertainment catalog. For one thing, the film’s Scientist doesn’t immediately know all their is to know about whatever intractable problem Our Heroes face. Dr. Action Jackson is just as far out of water as the Air Force characters, but at least he’s willing to admit it (earning him little more than dumb-jock contempt from his fellow Earthlings). James Spader is a much better awkward Scientist than Jeff Goldblum or Matthew Broderick could ever hope to be. His language lesson with Sha’uri is a great moment in sci-fi film history as, for once, an Earth scientist attempts to deal with “aliens” who don’t speak English. His transition from disgraced fringe-scientist to savior of the human race (albeit, on another world) is classic, John Norman stuff, without the constant murder and bondage that besets the planet Gor.
O’Neil is the consummate Kurt Russell character: monosyllabic and gruff, he contains all ambivalence our Infotainment culture feels towards the military. From Russell’s vacant stares and contemptuous relationships with everyone over the age of twelve we’re meant to understand his character’s son killed himself with daddy’s gun at some point before the film opens, affecting him mightily. Colonel O’Neil’s entire “arc” consists of getting over this, despite the fact there are some things y0u just don’t get over. Early-90s Hollywood never met a problem it couldn’t solve in two hours and change. In O’Neil’s case, sharing his love of smoking, automatic weapons and anti-theistic ass-kicking with the natives allows him a degree of closure as predictable and pat as the Big Red Ticking Clock on the Bomb he brought from Earth.
A lot of the film is like that: a crazed, Egyptian-themed fever dream of an Action flick, complete with strange cats that appear and disappear at will, almost as if they possessed a Slasher’s power of off-screen teleportation. But softer, more-nuanced forces occasionally rear their heads. I like that O’Neil is the first to more-or-less fall apart when it looks like All Hope Is Lost. And the fact that, for once, the Bomb is not defused just in the nick of time. I dislike the handling of O’Neil’s crew and the way they’re reduced to the level of Red Shirts. At the same time, their dialogue is as crisp and fresh as anything else Dean Devlin’s ever written. It’s not great writing, but it is useful writing, never getting in the way of its story. This leads to under-developed characters fulfilling the roles Devlin and Emmerich’s plot provides them. But unlike their previous film, Universal Soldier, this never leads to long lulls between action scenes wherein we pray for the deaths of our lead actors.
And unlike certain other Centropolis productions, Stargate is exactly as long as it needs to be. Succinct in its story, it never takes a hard-right into some dreary sub-plot meant to showcase “human interest.” As usual, a bit more character development would’ve turned a good film into a great one. But a crisp script, devoid of the narcissistic jingoism that made Independence Day an embarrassment and ensured Godzilla’s failure with its core demographic, keeps things lively, fresh and interesting, even after repeated viewings. If nothing else, you’ll be struggling to name O’Neil’s Red Shirts before they each die. See how many times it takes you to succeed. In the meantime, I’ll go out a limb and declare Stargate the high point of Centropolis Entertainment’s big-budget sic-fi thrillers, and the best Roland Emmerich film to date. Make of that what you will and go see Stargate if for no other reason than to see how good the series might’ve been.