“I’m here in case you succeed”
Could anyone have fathomed Stargate spawning a legion of television series and huge cult sci-fi following back in 1994? It came from writer/director Roland Emmerich after all, a man that had a German language feature and four in English, all ill received, behind him. Who knew he’d one day become the guy for big budget Hollywood end-of-the-world scenarios? Well at least a tag team partner of Captain Destruction Michael Bay. My first thought when sitting down to view this modern day classic—at the behest of my cousin—was whether I was just naïve kid back then, unaware of this hack’s ability to bore his audience with computer generated environments and apocalyptic foreboding. Honestly, besides the charisma of Will Smith winning the world over in Independence Day, (and The Patriot, which doesn’t count because there are no aliens or natural disasters to contend with), did he ever actually make a good film? After two plus hours of sci-fi glory, hammy humor that works, and special effects to blow a mid-90s fanboy’s mind, I have to admit, yes, he most certainly did.
I’ve yet to experience the Sci-Fi Channel’s—sorry, SyFy—iterations, although I’m going to begin “Universe” soon, but I can see the appeal and infinite possibilities that go along with a portal between stars. What made the film so fresh, however, wasn’t that a linguist and some marines traveled light years to a world unknown, but that, when they arrived, the beings they met weren’t only human, they were ancient Egyptian era humans. Who writes a film where our present-day stand-ins—complete with clunky, gray metal and lit button computer consoles—are more advanced than the alien planet they visit? It becomes such a simple twist of the coin, (granted deceivingly so due to the true extra-terrestrials who built the stargate in the first place), that the audience is left wrong-footed and susceptible to accept whatever the screenwriters throw their way. With fire being a force from the Gods, the existence of these men having guns and strange language could mean but one thing, they were otherworldly beings as well; perhaps friends with Ra and his pharaohed-out clan of soldiers. They have ruled with iron fists, wielded electricity for control, not technology, outlawing reading and writing so the masses remained slaves.
Unsurprisingly, by knowing the movies Emmerich makes afterwards, the general plot progression here mirrors the others perfectly. It all begins with the meeting of minds between science/linguistics and security/military. The two sides work together with ulterior motives, willing to let the other think they are running the show until the moment presents itself to take over. Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is brought in as an expert, eventually cracking the code that remained undecipherable for two years in a few days. His success leads the army to enlist their own secret weapon, Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell), a man broken as a result of his son’s accidental shooting, someone who only has his job to keep him going. Once the gate is opened, both parties cannot wait to step through, the first looking for signs of life to study and help understand their own past and the second searching for a way to prevent evil from crossing back over to Earth. It’s the age-old human way of always having two sides to the coin—life and death ever battling for supremacy; one having the power to create the other while also the ability to destroy it.
The film then becomes an action/adventure, transporting the leads to a desert world similar to the Middle East of third century BC. All the locals work in the mines, bringing the mineral Ra needs to manufacture his tools of oppression. When out of line, the ‘Gods’ wreak their vengeance with swift justice, shooting electric bolts to set an example of zero tolerance. So, when the strangers arrive with the symbol of Ra on one’s neck, kindness in their hearts, why wouldn’t the people rejoice at their good fortune? The Gods have changed, they wish to coexist and take on human form. Unable to communicate due to the ban on the written word, however, the truth isn’t learned until too late. It becomes more than solely finding the sequence of glyphs capable to return to Earth; these Americans must stand up and fight, showing this world’s people the fallibility of their deities, taking out injustice and finding their own true purposes in life. Jackson is no longer the dweeb behind glasses and ancient scriptures. He is a hero worthy of the most beautiful and intelligent woman in this civilization. And O’Neil is removed from his isolation of wallowing in self-pity and regret. He has found a community of children needing guidance and support; it’s a second chance to be redeemed for mistakes made.
It’s hard to say that Emmerich’s directing is somehow better than subsequent work; in fact it may be just the same. I think the reason Stargate’s quality appears greater is because he is unencumbered by the availability of computer graphics to strip all humanity from the screen. The battle scenes in the sand are filled to the brim with extras, the special effects are creatively done and integrated quite well without shooting on green screen, worrying about everything around the actors later. All aspects of this film needed to be carefully thought out and orchestrated exactingly, allowing all performers something real to act against; I really think Hollywood has lost itself by having people react against thin air. Russell is perfect as the tough guy with a capacity for compassion and Spader is full on neurotic eccentric, the odd leading man type he perfected in the 90s. The rest of the cast consists of familiar faces— John Diehl, Leon Rippy, French Stewart trying way too hard to be badass, and an early Djimon Hounsou—and effective parts from the foreigners in Alexis Cruz’s son-like Skaara and Mili Avital’s love interest Sha’uri. Even Jaye Davidson’s Ra, despite his youthful appearance, holds the kind of malicious ego necessary to fear him. I only wish Emmerich could somehow reclaim this magic.
Stargate 8/10 | ★ ★ ★