Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Mili Avital, Alexis Cruz, Erick Avari
Plot: When a strange Egyptian artefact turns up, the military recruit an Egyptologist (Spader) who believes the pyramids predate the Pharaohs.
It is hard to review Stargate without wondering where your end verdict is being drawn from. This is the original Sci-Fi Epic, about humanity finding a portal that can teleport them to the other side of the galaxy, that became a massive success as a cult action and went on to spawn its own television series. As with all franchises, even the stand-alone movie, which was intended to be an one-off affair, is viewed through rose-tinted glasses, a shining chapter in the cinematic history books. However, upon its first release, critics were lapping up the chance to condemn it before the public got their hands on it, suggesting that, as can often happen with cult films, the reality of the film’s quality is more of a myth. So what is the truth: is Stargate a bad movie, with its small qualities exaggerated to money-saving proportions or a wrongly accused flop, with merit to be found for anyone brave enough to duck past the reviews?
Truthfully, anything that can spawn an idea as original as Stargate is worth a recommendation in my books. Sci-Fi has an awful habit of sticking to its few successes (Star Wars, Star Trek), and rarely bothering to try anything new. While Stargate suffers from being a clear love child of Indiana Jones and Star Trek, it has enough original ideas in the pot to make it stand on its own two feet. We are introduced to the world of Stargate through a bemused military, spending two years trying to solve a hieroglyphic riddle on an unknown artefact, found buried in Egypt. Enter James Spader, in an early performance that is so good, it probably has helped him achieve the later roles that he is more known for. He is the kind of nerdy hero that movies love: socially awkward and inept in certain places, but so knowledgeable in his field, that when he gets onto a subject he knows about he earns his place on the team. Cue a brief intro, when he cracks the mystery at the heart of the Stargate in a single fortnight, pissing off the tired scientists who preceded him. Meanwhile, Kurt Russell provides the military side of things. We are introduced to Russell, as a broken father, grieving the loss of a son who was killed when he found his father’s pistol lying around and mistook it for a toy. However, as soon as that introduction scene, Russell a hollow, empty man, is done, the drama is breezed over. Russell transforms into a no-nonsense commando cliché, buzz-cut and stern glare of any military commander. It is the fact we know he is dying behind the straight face that fuels the character, bringing us a beautifully understated performance from the actor. He works as a dramatic hero, without the constant characterisation slowing down the movie. Stargate’s biggest flaw is that after Spader and Russell, there aren’t really any more characters that stand out. The rest of the soldiers are faceless red shirts, with a few who are meant to mean something to us, but the writers don’t ever give us enough to feel for them. It is a slight issue but Russell and Spader are strong enough to hold the movie together as a dysfunctional pairing. This military unit use the Stargate to travel across the galaxy to a planet far away, which turns out to be a replica of Egypt. With the same pyramids, suggesting the same engineers, the unit find a primitive human civilisation with an alien language that resemble the Ancient Egyptian race. The movie then goes on to answer the riddles at the heart of the story, cleverly using Egyptian lore to fuel its own mythology, creating a fascinating take on a new Sci-Fi adventure.
Action junkies will be left slightly flat, because while there is a nasty alien race and a tremendous baddie at the finale, it takes a long time for them to show up. Like all good Sci-Fis, Emmerich is more concerned with telling the story about the universe. Therefore, this movie is in no rush to get to the third act, weaving a tale about strangers interacting with a race that they cannot communicate with. While Russell has a secret from the team that means he wants to get home pronto, Spader is soaking in the chance to relearn Ancient history. Spader truly conveys the sense of a man inches from enlightenment, finding a soft spot for a doting girl in the tribe and using her to teach him this language. If you are the sort of movie-lover that can employ patience, Stargate will not throw you off. Thankfully, when the bad guys do arrive, Emmerich is able to use the action movie staples both he and everyone else have been waiting to witness. Cue Russell stepping up as his token bad-ass and Emmerich satisfying his love of explosions. The casting of the villain is an interesting one too. These days, when a director gets a chance to portray an alien figure with the arrogance of a God, you go Shakespearian Epic, finding a veteran actor with a rumbling voice and scene-chewing talent: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Irons… hell, James Spader. But here Emmerich casts a younger face, Jaye Davidson, which instantly gives Stargate a fresh take on the bad guy role. There is something so alien about Davidson’s Ra, a teenage boy with the intellect of an immortal ruler (there is no temptation to go to Joffrey levels of cruelty). His entire performance is a paradox, a gentle femininity about his movements and body language, but a rasping voice of a demonic overlord. While the CGI effects surrounding the character are slightly dated, it is a villain to be reckoned with. While it takes a while getting to it, the action definitely gives Stargate the kick to be a cult film, and definitely not an over-rated failure.
Final Verdict: It is indulgent with the pacing, sure, but an original universe and two superb lead actors make Stargate a movie to cherish.