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.