Sunday, June 5, 2016

STARGATE (1994) - **

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Running time: 116 min.
Release date: October 28, 1994

Stargate holds the theory that alien beings made contact with human civilization; they even possibly enslaved the humans to build the pyramids of Egypt. The movie shows us that scholars scoff at this theory, even while highly intelligent individuals believe it holds some merit. If Stargate had somehow held onto this theory and built a better story around it with interesting chracters, this would have been a better film. Alas, however, it does not hold up.

Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is the Egyptologist and linguist who is laughed at by others during a presentation on his theories about how the pyramids were built. He is recruited by Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors) to translate hieroglyphs found on stone structures discovered by her father in Egypt in 1928. We get only a glimpse of Jackson's backstory with a throwaway comment from Catherine about him living out of his suitcase. We also learn that he has allergy issues that crop up whenever he travels. Daniel is ushered into a secret military compound, where he immediately corrects the inaccurate translations of a colleague on the stones. Some of the extra characters here were written to just stand around and gape at how quickly Daniel figured it out. Others are military figures whose job it is to speak gruffly with phrases like "Show him" and "You're on the team.". We meet Col. Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell), who takes charge of the operation. His backstory is that he is despondent over the accidental death of his son, which has caused a strain on his marriage. One buzzcut later and he's back on the job and barking orders. Character depth is not this film's strong suit.

The military has a large device called a "stargate", discovered on the same archaelogical dig, which Daniel discovers uses constellations as coordinates. With this information, the device is fired up and a team of soldiers assembled, led by O'Neil and accompanied by Daniel. Daniel's job is to translate the stargate on the other side in order to get the team back home. O'Neil's instructions are to blow everything up should there be any sign of danger. Once on the other side of the universe, the team discovers a desert landscape not unlike Egpyt. They also discover a race of humans working in a mine. The team befriends these people, including a boy named Skaara (Alexis Cruz) and his sister Sha'uri (Mili Avital), who has taken a liking to Daniel. Daniel picks up on their language as he recognizes it to be an ancient form of Egyptian. Along the way, Daniel discovers that the alien being Ra (Jaye Davidson) has prevented these people from becoming literate. A revolt on Earth led to the burial of the stargate there. Ra appears in his spaceship, using a pyramid for a landing point and captures some of the soldiers. Ra is pretty upset that the humans reactivated the stargate and plans on sending O'Neil's bomb back through the stargate to blow things up. The movie then becomes a race against the time displayed on the ticking time bomb in order to save everybody and turn the tables on Ra.

Director Roland Emmerich has created an expansive world on the other side of the stargate. The film's strong suit is the technical side of things. The visual effects created by Jeff Kleiser are good, with the wormhole effects of the stargate dazzling the screen. Karl Walter Lindenlaub's cinematography paints an endless golden desert landscape. The score by David Arnold is bold and gives the film a sense of majesty. However, the screenplay by Emmerich and Dean Devlin betrays it all with very little character depth. It also takes a strong build-up and reduces it to an action film filled with clichés.

One of the glaring weaknesses is the characterization of the villain, Ra. Here is a mighty alien being who can travel across the universe, and he is reduced to an androgynous fop surrounded by teenage boys. My first reaction upon seeing Ra fully-costumed was to laugh. Jaye Davidson was the wrong actor to cast in this role, as his level of menace leaned more toward a Batman villain from the 60's TV series. This is one of the worst movie villains of all time. With paper-thin characters throughout the film, the cast had very little else to do but fall back on action film clichés.

In the end, Stargate is a technically proficient film with plenty of special effects to bedazzle the audience. However, the lack of interesting characters and the failure of the screenplay to follow up on an interesting theory takes this film down. Perhaps we should have sent Stargate through the stargate and then pulled the plug. 

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