Stargate (review)

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Lost in the Desert

A dig in the Egyptian desert unearths a mysterious and powerful artifact, which ends up warehoused for decades.

An iconoclastic expert of ancient histories and languages is approached by the U.S. military for help on a top-secret project related to his area of expertise.

I bet Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich like Raiders of the Lost Ark a whole bunch.
Their movie machine — Devlin is a writer and producer, Emmerich is a director and producer — would later bring us the likes of Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Patriot, but 1994’s Stargate was one of their early attempts to out-Spielberg Spielberg. They especially seem to enjoy ripping off Spielberg’s patented Slack-Jawed Look of Amazement and Wonder in the Face of Amazing and Wondrous Things (see: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and just about every Spielberg flick in between), which shows up a lot in Stargate.

James Spader (Supernova, Bob Roberts), back when he was really cute, is Dr. Daniel Jackson, a linguist and Egyptologist with some radical ideas about the Great Pyramids whom the U.S. Air Force shanghais into their hush-hush project. In the 1920s, a European expedition dug up a big-ass metal ring covered with undecipherable hieroglyphics. How this thing ended up at a secret installation under an American mountain is a mystery, too, but today — or, rather, in 1994 — Jackson has been brought in to figure the damn thing out — or, rather, to figure out how to make the damn thing work, because the gubmint types have a pretty good idea what the big-ass ring is supposed to do.

The first half of Stargate is a fairly interesting SF variation on Raiders Of the Lost Ark, actually, as the ring turns out to be a wormhole generator, connecting Earth with a planet on the other side of the universe — plus the first hour of the film focuses mostly on Daniel, who’s nigh on the only interesting or developed character in the film. But as the military starts really sticking its nose in, and a commando team led by the square-jawed and stolid Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell: 3000 Miles to Graceland, Soldier) journeys through the Stargate for a recce, well, the downslide is all but inevitable. The distant planet turns out to be inhabited by… humans, whose ancestors were dragged there millennia earlier by a nasty alien called Ra (Jaye Davidson), who travels around in a pyramid-shaped spaceship and enslaves people and generally misbehaves. Stargate kinda turns into Indiana Jones meets a particularly bad episode of Doctor Who. With shooting. Lots and lots of shooting. And some explosions thrown in for good measure.

So what starts out as not the same-old, same-old sci-fi quickly degenerates into the same-old, same-old action-movie gunplay, and all the potentially interesting ideas the film introduces end up virtually unexplored. I hated this film the first time out, when I saw it during its original theatrical run, for all the possibility that it wastes. Now, it plays much better as a prelude to the absolutely wonderful Showtime Original series — Stargate SG1, the best SF on TV right now — which takes all the juicy material here that Devlin and Emmerich set up and subsequently ignored, and runs with it to create a cohesive, expansive, and — most importantly — original mytho-SF playground to explore. Of course, it’s much too large a playground for any single film to roam, but Stargate barely even tries.

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