Stargate Review

by Jeffrey Graebner (70004 DOT 1065 AT CompuServe DOT COM)
November 10th, 1994

[Followups directed to rec.arts.movies and rec.arts.sf.movies. -Moderator]
A film review by Jeffrey Graebner
Copyright 1994 Jeffrey Graebner

    For virtually everyone, there are a few films that fit into the "guilty pleasure" category. These are movies that are clearly not very good, but which you still enjoy against your own better judgement. STARGATE is just such a film.

    The storyline of this film is completely ludicrous. The film opens in the 1920s with the discovery of an unusual artifact in the Egyptian desert. It then jumps to the present day where the military is involved in a scientific analysis of this artifact (the movie never bothers to explain where the artifact had been for the last 70 years). They bring in controversial but brilliant Egyptologist Dr. Jackson (James Spader) who quickly figures out that the artifact is a "stargate" allowing for instantaneous interstellar travel. Soon, Dr. Jackson is going along on a mission led by suicidal Col. O'Neil (Kurt Russell) to the "other side of the known universe". On the other side, they discover a race of enslaved humans being ruled by an alien posing as the sun god Ra (Jaye Davidson). In the process, we learn the "true" origins of the Great Pyramids.

    Obviously, this story sounds pretty ridiculous in print. It doesn't make much more sense in the film itself. In fact, a large part of the film's entertainment value comes from watching to see how much more ludicrous the plot can become. Just when you think the film has reached a new height of silliness, it manages to come up with some new ridiculous idea. As silly as it all is, everyone involved in the film seems to be taking it completely seriously. The result probably works much better than it would have if the filmmakers had acknowledged the silliness of the plot and tried to play it for laughs. Some of the fun here comes from the fact that you will likely be laughing at things that weren't really meant to be funny.

    Even with an extremely badly written role like he has here, James Spader still manages to come out of the film with some dignity intact. In order to indicate that he is an intellectual, but a bit of a dweeb, Spader is made up to have an almost frightening resemblance to John Denver. He is one of those ultra-brilliant movie scientists who can come in and immediately solve puzzles that other scientists have been struggling with for years. He also has outlandish theories that can clear a conference room in a moment but which, of course, must turn out to be completely true. Spader is asked to give bizarre speeches containing all kinds of technological buzzwords, do lots of bumbling stunts (including being dragged across the desert by a strange alien pack animal), translate and occasionally speak extinct Egyptian dialects, participate in one of the most awkward love stories of recent memory, and to frequently act indignant at the soldiers' behavior (thankfully, he is never required to start singing "Rocky Mountain High"). Despite all this, Spader still remains likable and even comes close to creating a believable character.

    Russell, on the other hand, is given an incredibly cliched role and does virtually nothing with it. Early in the film, we are told that Russell's character had a son who was accidentally shot. When we get our first look at Russell, he has a gun to his head preparing to commit suicide. With those two little bits of information, you can probably correctly guess >everything< that Russell is going to do in this movie. In general, Russell seemed bored like he didn't really want to be there during most of the movie.

    Most of the publicity about Jaye Davidson's role in THE CRYING GAME seemed to revolve around his character's secret, but that largely ignored the fact that he gave a genuinely powerful and moving performance in that film. Unfortunately, his role here indicates that he may be doomed to stunt casting from now on. Despite the fact that he is prominently featured in much of the promotional material for the film, Davidson doesn't even appear until about ninety minutes into the movie (which runs just under two hours). All of his dialogue is electronically enhanced and is in the film's version of ancient Egyptian. The majority of his "performance" is really just posing for the camera instead of acting. Hopefully, somebody will eventually find Davidson another role with some depth, but this movie certainly isn't it.

    Obviously, the storyline here does not live up to any kind of close scrutiny. If you try to look for logic here, you will likely never find it. At the top of the list of implausibilities is Spader's incredible ability to instantly read, speak, and understand ancient Egyptian dialects, even if he has never encountered them before. I guess that it is somewhat courageous of the filmmakers not to have all the aliens speak English, but they still take the easy way out by allowing Spader to become a human "universal translator". Another major implausibility is the fact that the civilization on the other planet seems to be technically way ahead of Earth, but that the humans on the other side of the stargate do not seem to have evolved one bit in thousands of years.

    Another major problem with this film is the unfortunate cliches involved in the portrayal of the military. Screenwriters Roland Emmerich (who also directed) and Dean Devlin seem to have based the soldiers on those from other paranoid science fiction movies. Particularly during the early scenes, the soldiers seem rather cruel and heartless, showing virtually no wonderment about their journey. Of course, the film eventually ends up turning into a massive shoot-em-up, but it sure would have been nice if it had taken a more surprising direction.

    Emmerich's direction of the film is a bit better than his screen-writing. The film moves at a very brisk pace and is certainly never dull. The whole movie is infused with a misguided but infectious energy. It is as if Emmerich realized how ridiculous the story was and thus felt that it would help to have everyone >really< work hard to sell it. In a way, this almost works. At times, Emmerich's direction seems a bit amateurish, though. Some of the action sequences are shot so confusingly that it is really difficult to tell what is happening (particularly surprising since the movie seems to have only about five or six bad guys...) As mentioned earlier, the romance between Spader and a native girl is also handled awkwardly, largely as an

    The production values of the film are generally quite good. There are some really neat looking CGI special effects (particularly the sequences where the characters travel through the stargate) which are generally quite convincing. Karl Walter Lindenlaub's Panavision photography is also good with some really nice desert vistas. David Arnold's music score is not particularly original (it seems to borrow from a number of other science fiction scores), but it is sufficiently rousing and effective. The soundtrack has a lot of bass and makes extensive use of surround sound, so it is probably best to see the film in a theater with the best possible sound system.

    STARGATE certainly is not a very good film, but it is generally an enjoyable one. Much of the enjoyment comes from laughing at the film's ineptitude, a fact that likely would not please the filmmakers, but that doesn't change the fact that the movie will provide a generally good time.

Jeffrey P. Graebner
Columbus, Ohio

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