Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Viveca Linfors, Alexis Cruz, Mili Avital
Ah, the early-90s. The economy was up, all the members of Nirvana were still alive, and Roland Emmerich movies weren’t colossal jokes. Guess it couldn’t last forever.
In 1928 Egypt, a strange, ringed device is found by an expedition. In the present day, the outcast linguist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is invited by a mysterious woman to decipher the hieroglyphic writing emblazoned on the device, which now sits in a military facility. Soon he finds that the device was developed by an advanced civilization and opens a portal to another planet. Dr. Jackson is invited to join a military team under the command of Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) that will explore the new world. Into the portal they walk, emerging on a desert world populated by primitive humans that worship Ra, the God of the Sun, in reality an ancient alien ruler with designs of conquest for planet Earth.
Emmerich’s sixth feature-length film and his third collaboration with writer Dean Devlin, Stargate represents one of their best efforts, alongside Independence Day and The Patriot. Stargate is a unique sci-fi adventure, to say the least. To read the synopsis on paper, a new viewer would probably think it is a B-movie, and it certainly exhibits aspects of that genre, but the production is an elevated affair, featuring incredibly sweeping vistas and visual effects.
But detailed matte paintings and awesome space ships alone don’t make a good movie–that honor belongs to the script and the talent bringing it to life. Stargate‘s script is a run-of-the-mill adventure for the most part, proficient in delivering an entertaining two hours and not much more. There are interesting concepts at work, revolving around the ancient astronaut theory, but as soon as Ra himself is revealed, the mystery takes a backseat to the action pieces. This isn’t a bad thing, just don’t expect Prometheus.
What really sells this film are the performances of Spader and Russell, and the realization of the alien threat. By all accounts, Spader didn’t think much of the film, taking the role of Jackson “for the money,” but his professionalism shines through as he delivers a pretty funny performance as the nerdy scientist stereotype. Russell gives it his all as well, portraying the quiet torment of a father who has already outlived his young son. It’s the Kurt at his usual best; I couldn’t imagine anyone else as O’Neil (sorry Richard Dean Anderson).
As everyone well-versed in science fiction cinema knows, Stargate spawned a sizable television franchise, with the first spinoff series, SG-1, becoming the longest-running sci-fi show in history. I guess I’m the black sheep in the crowd that only seems to prefer the film only, but the shows aren’t bad at all, and worth a watch if you fancy them. Just be sure to start here.
NOTE: Stargate is available in two versions, the 121-minute theatrical version, and an extended cut featuring 9 minutes of additional footage. The extensions are pretty well spread across the feature, and while the theatrical cut really has no holes to cover, the extended cut offers a satisfying experience in its own right without any sacrifices to the pacing. Both are available on the “15th Anniversary Edition” blu-ray by Lionsgate.