Stargate (1994)

reviewed by
Scott Renshaw

                       A film review by Scott Renshaw
                        Copyright 1994 Scott Renshaw

Starring: Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson. Screenplay: Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Director: Roland Emmerich.

STARGATE is a movie from out of a time warp, and I'm not just talking about the plot. The late 70s and early 80s were the heyday of grand scale science fiction/fantasy epics, both on the big screen and the small screen, produced to cash in on the success of the STAR WARS trilogy. STARGATE feels a lot like many of those films: overblown, underwritten, yet still moderately entertaining. Perhaps it was the sense of nostalgia it inspired in me, but STARGATE offered just enough to keep me interested, despite all of its bombast and unfulfilled promise.

STARGATE opens in Egypt in 1928, where an archaeological team discovers a massive artifact. Flash forward to the present, where the military is studying the object, and brings in radical young Egyptologist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) to help decipher its hieroglyphs. He is successful, and discovers that the artifact is a gateway to a distant star system. An advance team of soldiers is sent to find out what's on the other side of the stargate, let by Col. Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell) and including Dr. Jackson. There they discover a thriving civilization of what appear to be humans, living much as they would have lived in the Egypt of the pharaohs. They also discover that the world is ruled by a being called Ra (Jaye Davidson), who appears to be anything but benevolent.

For the first half hour, STARGATE seems to be pretty comfortably on the right track, with a solid premise. Spader in particular is quite appealing, playing the perfect slightly dazed academic; the early scenes in which he shows up the military scientists are low-key and quite a lot of fun. In fact, for all its $50 million scale, Spader may be the best thing STARGATE has going for it. Unfortunately, he makes Kurt Russell look like a large piece of plywood by comparison. Playing a man shattered by the death of his young son, Russell is supposed to be taciturn and all business; instead, he's just a huge dullard without a scrap of personality, and it's impossible to care anything about him. As such he fits right in with the rest of the advance team, an interchangeable collection of macho grunts.

Once we get to the other side of the stargate, things are still wildly uneven, and we're not even talking about those plausibility questions that plague most science fiction fare. The real issue is that as good as STARGATE looks, it's awfully slow-moving. The sets and costume design are impressive, and even the desert sandscapes have a certain beauty to them. But STARGATE falls victim to its attempts at creating a fully-realized alternative civilization. It's a nice touch that they don't speak the "miracle English" common to alien civilizations, but it makes the soldiers' interactions with them extremely tedious. The fascination of some of the younger ones with the human aliens is believable, but a scene involving one of them reacting to Kurt Russell's lighter as magic is as old as the hills. It's as though director and co-scripter Roland Emmerich paid so much attention to cultural detail that he missed the big picture--providing a truly engaging story.

The climax of STARGATE is a major improvement, full of energy and creativity. It's a shame that Jaye Davidson's Ra is such a boring villain, gliding along through the ship making imperious pronouncements in a voice bearing a frightening similarity to that of Jabba the Hut. There is really very little in Ra's role except ordering guards around, so the threat isn't nearly as threatening as it might be. The bottom line, though, is that even as I was thinking about how ridiculous some of the resolutions were (including final decisions made by both Russell's and Spader's characters), I realized that I had enjoyed myself. And for a matinee price, I generally don't ask for much more.

     On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 $50 million pyramids:  6.
Scott Renshaw
Stanford University
Office of the General Counsel

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