Roland Emmerich’s Stargate

Stargate presented a bit of a problem for me — it became a “cult film”, which is something I usually tryd to avoid, but it was a) science fiction, and b) somewhat out of the ordinary. So, I picked up the DVD.

A young Egyptologist and expert in ancient languages, Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader), comes up with a new translation of the characters describing an ancient artifact. Scholars being what they are, he becomes an outcast, because his translation doesn’t match the traditional translations. It is, of course, the correct translation. He is invited to work on a project at a military lab headed by Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors), whose father was the one who discovered the whole thing many years before on a dig near the Pyramids. Jackson figures out that the symbols are the coordinates for a destination. Col. Jonathan “Jack” O’Neil (Kurt Russell) is brought out of retirement to lead an expedition to the destination planet.

They find a primitive culture and a people that are slaves to a “sun god,” Ra (Jaye Davidson). They also realize they don’t know how to get home: no coordinates for the return trip. So they do just exactly as one would expect: they lead a revolt against Ra.

Needless to say, it all works out for the best (except for Ra).

There’s not really much to be said about this film: the script is, if not completely predictable, not terribly adventurous and falls into the pattern of so many “outsiders help oppressed people throw off evil overlords” works ranging from historical dramas to, as in this case, space opera. It does have the elements of a good thriller, but they get pretty much buried in a kind of self-consciousness that concentrates on the “originality” of the concept at the expense of what could actually make it work.

The acting is capable, but again, constrained by the banality of the script: both Spader and Russell are hard-put to move beyond stereotype, but I get the feeling that they weren’t given much to work with. Davidson has the unenviable task of bringing to life a god with no help from the script whatsoever. Consequently, Ra is little more than a series of poses, with an occasional grimace. Filtering his voice didn’t help all that much, either — it’s just one more remove from any sort of accessibility. As it is, Ra comes across as strained and artificial. (Hint: if you’re going to make characters like gods, elves and the like believable, they have to have some humanity to them.)

The effects are pretty good, and while probably excellent for the time, looking back from this vantage they’re nothing special – CGI has made great strides in the past decade.

And yet there’s some sort of fascination here that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not the fascination of a train wreck – the film’s not that bad – but it’s a quality that makes it easy to see why Stargate became what some have called a “cult classic.”

This edition – the “Special Edition Sensormatic,” whatever that means – contains, in addition to the usual add-ons (trailer, cast info, Dolby, etc.), both the theatrical version and a “special” version with an additional 9 minutes of footage, along with commentary by the director and producer.

Rated PG-13, running time 119 minutes.

(Live/Artisan, 1994)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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