January 4, 2012

Stargate (1994)

Stargate is one of those films that seemed extraordinarily popular at the time, but now seems half-forgotten. In many ways it's now perceived as a sort of prologue to the far more prolific, long-running television franchise that it inspired. It's a curiosity; the sort of film that one views with an air of "oh, this is where it started", and with an odd sense that it's Kurt Russell playing Richard Dean Anderson's part rather than the other way around. This is a pity, because while Stargate is by no means a classic film it remains vastly superior to the rather tepid TV dramas that followed it.

The film trades on the 1970s craze, typified by Erich Von Daniken, for aliens building the Egyptian pyramids. A mysterious ring is uncovered in Giza in the late 1920s, and 70 years later the US military develops a means to activate it, open a portal halfway across the universe and send a team to an distant planet. There they discover a lost colony of primitive humans and a powerful alien despot with designs to destroy the human race.

The plot is relatively simplistic and uncomplicated, but where Stargate actively excels is in its mise-en-scene. Director Roland Emmerich successfully generates a very engaging sense of wonder about this strange new planet. It feels awe-inspiring and mysterious. The top-notch production design by Patrick Tatopoulos is a major factor in this. He takes ancient Egyptian architecture, fashion and mythology, and develops it into a strongly visual universe. It's precisely this sense of awe that the TV series Stargate SG-1 lost: by visiting world after world on a weekly schedule any air of mystery was completely destroyed.

Stars Kurt Russell and James Spader give strong, direct performances. Jaye Davison plays the villainous Ra. It's one of only two screen performances he ever gave (the other was his astonishing turn in The Crying Game), and he makes for an excellent antagonist. Few actors have such a naturally strong presence on screen, which makes it such a pity that he never acted again.

This film has a lot of flaws - most of Emmerich's films have - but there is still an undeniable appeal about Stargate that has me coming back to watch it again and again. Science fiction should fill us with awe and wonder, and it's a shame that - on screen at least - it so rarely manages to do that.


  1. I've never understood the appeal of the Stargate TV series, which started out cheap, self important, and silly, and seemed to go downhill from there. Now, I'll freely admit to not having watching every episode - didn't the damn thing go for ten years, plus spin-offs? - and so my impressions are based on the first season and a few scattered episodes throughout the rest of the run, but life's too short to watch a decade of TV in the hopes that it'll get better.

  2. It doesn't get better in my experience. I watched most of the first few seasons in-store while I was a video store clerk.

    Stargate Universe is pretty good, based on the pilot. I'm keen to try more of it. The fact that it was cancelled because SG1 fans didn't respond to it gives me hope.

  3. Stargate Universe was cancelled because it had all the rediculouse infighting and angst that BattleStar Galactica had without any likeable characters or decent story.

    As someone who's watched all four TV series of Stargate, I still find the film the superiour. When the TV series started, I liked where it was going, but looking back at the film, I'm always bewilderd how the show went so far off track.

    The blend of mythic iconography into high tech devices was glorious.

  4. I found the characters in SGU quite realistic, which made a change from the usual SF TV. As I said above though, I've only seen the three-part pilot and my opinion may change when I get around to watching the whole series.


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