Stargate (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's a fine line between giving homage to something and stealing from it - and the division is usually defined by how creative and enjoyable the final product is. Using that distinction, Stargate is on uncertain ground. This new big-budget science fiction/fantasy offering can claim barely an original moment, taking from such diverse sources as Star Wars, Star Trek, Close Encounters, Dune, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Doctor Who, and even Dances With Wolves and King Kong.

The story combines traditional popular science fiction themes with a heavy dose of Egyptological mumbo-jumbo. Occasional, mostly-halfhearted attempts at character development are ignored whenever they don't impact directly on the plot. As has frequently become the case with movies of this genre, the visual effects and breathtaking cinematography far outstrip everything else offered by Stargate.

James Spader plays nerdish Egyptologist Daniel Jackson, whose linguistic expertise is called upon for decoding inscriptions on tiles discovered in an Egyptian archeological site. These turn out to be the key that turns the lock in something called the "stargate", an intergalactic portal (that looks like a giant donut) to some Earth-like world on the "far side of the known universe."

Kurt Russell is Colonel Jack O'Neil, the borderline-suicidal military commander of a mission to the other side of the stargate. Accompanied by his crack troops and Jackson, O'Neil enters the gate and emerges in what looks suspiciously like Egypt. It's not, however, as the three moons in the sky soon prove. This is the land of the Egyptian Sun God Ra (Jaye Davidson) and his people.

Ra, it seems, created human society on Earth and on this world as well as the stargates, and was displeased when the ancient Egyptians closed their side of the space/time corridor, confining him to one planet. Now that the way is again open, Ra has decided to prepare a little surprise for those waiting at the far end.

What begins as an enjoyable romp degenerates into a tired retread of the age-old good-versus evil battle pitting a group of overachieving mortals against a ruthless god-like being. It's Luke against the Emperor from Return of the Jedi without the malevolent, charismatic presence of Darth Vader. Ultimately, the final battle, aside from being inexplicably rushed, is dull and lacking in genuine suspense.

The first half of the film, which includes the setup, Jackson's intense struggle to break the stargate's code, the expedition to Ra's world, and humankind's first contact with an alien culture, is handled reasonably well. Things only start to fall apart with Ra's appearance. Then it's all shoot-outs and fight scenes, with action taking precedence over intelligence.

The cast members do their best with sketchy roles. Kurt Russell makes an effective no-nonsense military man who doesn't overplay his grief at a recent personal tragedy. Not for the first time, James Spader is believable as a dweeb forced into a heroic act or two. And Jaye Davidson, despite never speaking a word of English, has a commanding presence as the androgynous Ra.

Stargate is peppered with numerous minor faults, some of which - although not all - are easily forgiven. It's the bigger plot problems and lackluster climax which are more difficult to excuse. Director Roland Emmerich, who previously made Universal Soldier, appears infatuated with his film's look without caring if anything moderately substantial lies beneath the glitz. Stargate is all flashes and bangs - a cinematic fireworks show without the grand finale.

Stargate (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1994-10-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1