Tag Archives: sci fi

Stargate (1994)



Starring : Kurt Russel, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Alexis Cruz
Director : Ronald Emmerich
Screenplay : Ronald Emmerich & Dean Devlin
Rating : PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

With Roland Emmerich’s “2012” plowing through multiplexes all over the world, I thought, why not go back to one of Emmerich’s older, disaster-free sci-fi epics ? Since there are but a few that do not feature the total destruction of famous landmarks, I picked “Stargate”, Emmerich’s first big-budget Hollywood epic and starting point of a cult following that was picked up by a (very) long-running TV series.

The plot starts off in 1928 with the discovery of a strange artifact in Egypt, then moves on to present day, where Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a goofy Egyptologist with some weird theories, is recruited by the government to help in translating ancient tablets for a research project which is, not surprisingly, connected to the artifact found in 1928. The research concludes that the said discovery is in fact a portal which requires a set of 7 symbols to open up a wormhole to alien worlds. Cue in the military, which put Col. O’Neill (Kurt Russel) in charge of the expedition to see what lies beyond the “gate to the stars”. Soon after they go through, they find themselves on a desert planet and realise they do not have the required 7 symbols to return home. As they explore the planet, they stumble upon a primitive civilisation of humans which turn out to be slaves used by malevolent alien forces led by an incarnation of Ra (yes, the Egyptian sun god), who apparently built the pyramids on Earth. The plot thickens considerably along the way, and it all builds to a typical blockbuster climax which involves a nuclear weapon with the obligatory digital countdown timer, fist fighting, Daniel saving the love of his life, a desert battle where bullets are obviously no match for laser-slinging flying ships, and the line “Give my regards to King Tut, asshole !”.

The film flows nicely for whatever running time it takes them to activate the stargate and go through it (which must be about 20 minutes). After that, the pacing feels a bit erratic. There’s no build-up, just a sequence of discoveries and explanatory dialogue briefly punctuated by bursts of visual effects and some action, which makes it hard to get excited about what you’re seeing. In fact, it’s far from Emmerich’s action-packed epics that followed, at least in that regard. You would almost think that it’s deliberately taking its time to construct a plot, but in fact it’s just superficially maneuvering through a check-list of cliches just so it can have those impressive action scenes at the end. It all feels like it’s on autopilot and when the big face-off arrives, you realise just how little you’ve seen in terms of creativity. Clearly, the TV series was an improvement, providing a better feel of the Stargate universe, since the film is dissapointingly limited in scope.

When they actually get down to business, the visuals are pretty impressive, especially since they’re 15 years old. The FX have aged well, though you can easily spot the rudimentary CGI, because they stick out like a sore thumb. But, the miniatures and more practical photography effects are still pretty neat. The look of the alien hi-tech Egyptian style makes for some very pleasing eye-candy that basically supports the lack of interesting plot/dialogue. Kurt Russel can certainly play it cool. It’s refreshing to see him bravely take on all that square-jawed macho B.S. That “King Tut” line belongs to his character, and, boy, does he deliver it, or what ? He’s clearly been in this kind of B flick special effects extravaganza before and just runs with it. Spader is just as much fun as the airheaded scientist who becomes a saviour of sorts, but Ra, played by Jaye Davidson is only marginally interesting and doesn’t make a very solid villain which is a shame actually, because a villain can make or break a sci-fi film like this.

All in all, it isn’t Emmerich’s most impressive film, and this is coming from someone who expects nothing but mindless fun and total destruction from the man. Despite some honorable ambitions and fun moments, it fails to muster the enthusiasm that the seemingly endless seasons of the TV series did, although in all fairness, this is where it all started. I can’t imagine how the producers got around to spinning the concept for television, but in the end, it was a far more inspired idea than Emmerich’s big screen effort.


Babylon A.D. (2008)


Starring : Vin Diesel, Michelle Yeoh, Melanie Thierry, Gerard Depardeu, Charlotte Rampling
Director : Mathieu Kassovitz
Screenwriter: Mathieu Kassovitz, Joseph Simas
Rating : PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, language and some sexuality

I always regarded Mathieu Kassovitz as a talented director. His 1995 director award at Cannes for “La Haine” (aso nominated for the Palme D’Or) and his ’97 second nomination for “Assassin(s)” seemed to confirm that. But his follow up films seemed to be less inclined to please the critics. “Les Rivieres Pourpres”, “Gothika” and the awesome failure “Babylon A.D.” won’t be seen present at any awards ceremony too soon (maybe the Razzies). The latter, even Kassovitz dismisses as being like a bad episode of “24”.

His troubles seem to have started in the production stages of the film, with the studios interfering quite often in his efforts, altering both the script and the overall directorial vision. It certainly must have been some complex script since I read it took him five years to write it. Also, it seems 70 minutes of the film were cut before release, against Kassovitz’s will. I’m not sure if they would have made any difference, but it might still have been better than the current confused mess it is.

Somewhere in a relatively near future, Vin Diesel is Toorop, a cynical mercenary who receives a delicate mission from a russian gangster, Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu in heavy make-up). The mission requires Toorop to escort a mysterious young girl, Aurora (Melanie Thierry) and her protector, sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh) to New York. The two are members of a global religious cult, the Neolites, whose ambitions regard influence on a global scale. The trio’s perilous journey from the frozen wastes of Russia to the neon-lit New York carries the viewer through numerous dystopian locations, without going into too much backstory about this version of the future. The production design certainly contains enough clues about what a bad place the world has become, all because of our rotten nature, hence the title “Babylon A.D.”. Also, Toorop’s mission becomes even more complicated when Aurora seems to manifest all kinds of supernatural traits. She can see things before they happen, she can sense the emotions of people around her and acts like the designated messiah of the future. Also joining the chase are the Neolite’s High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling), acting like the designated villain, and Aurora’s long lost father who comes at the exact moment of the plot to provide the film with its twist. Toorop and Rebeka become guardian angels (I just could not avoid further religious analogies) in an invisible conflict, with mankind’s fate at stake.

As I mentioned, there are twists involved so I’ll keep the synopsis to a minimum. It might not be much of a film, but I don’t want to ruin the whole thing for you. It’s biggest flaw seems to be the incoherent story. Minus the 70 lost minutes, it’s just a jumbled 90 minute mess that has to squeeze a plot between the Vin Diesel patented action scenes. It feels incomplete, confusing and ultimately too over the top in pursuing the religious tone. It’s also the kind of Sci Fi with a moral statement attached, but it’s more like a slap over the head than a revelation. The visual effects and production design are quite good for the moderate budget it had available. Vin Diesel is convincing enough for the part, considering all he has to do is to mumble lines and be physical. The supporting cast does a good enough job considering, though they are clearly not having any fun. The action is a bit lacking, and when it does show up it doesn’t impress. For example, a big shootout in the middle of a jammed intersection ends up being over-edited and confusing. The ending is silly and comes surprisingly too late. Overall, it can be argued that the film does not have much going for it.

It might not be entirely the director’s fault. He might be the victim of the studios much like David Fincher with Alien 3. However, this does not excuse the finished product which is catastrophic. It might have required a Director’s Cut to make sense of it, but as it is, it’s just a waste of time.