|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 01 November 2006|
Because “Stargate” looks terrific and plunged boldly ahead into its improbable story of instantaneous travel between galaxies, and because it features an appealing star performance by James Spader (though Kurt Russell is dull), it initially received better review than it was really entitled to. Watched on video, especially in this special edition, seven minutes longer than in theatrical release, “Stargate” gradually wears the viewer down. It feels as though someone is stacking increasingly heavy weights on your chest, and you can’t get up, you can’t get relief.
Fortunately, this Blu-Ray disc, in high definition, is a real dazzler, visually. The special effects are good but not outstanding, but they’re also amazing to look at. The picture on your high-def set seems immediate and real, even when moderately incredible things are going on. (The movie is not especially spectacular, and is woefully unimaginative.) On the unnamed planet our stalwart heroes reach, you can practically feel the gritty texture of the sandstone pillars and walls (and you might even be able to detect Styrofoam, which is what they’re probably really made of). A sandstorm sends grit into your eyes, the sand dunes almost shimmer in the heat.
Which makes it even more of a pity that the story itself is basically so bluntly ordinary. But this team of writer Dean Devlin and director Paul Emmerich has made science fiction movies that are spectacular visually and childish conceptually their stock in trade. “Independence Day” was fun, but it was just another alien invasion movie with no imaginative speculation at all. Their “Godzilla” was a restaging, not of the Japanese movie, but of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” and not nearly as exciting or entertaining than that movie, more than 50 years old now.
Emmerich seems to have leached his visual style from the films of Steven Spielberg. After an opening sequence (which occurred later in the theatrical print) of a pyramidical alien ship landing in Egypt in 8000 BC, and evidently taking captive a young boy, there’s another scene in Egypt, near Giza, in 1928, that looks like outtakes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A big ring is hoisted up on its edge by far, far too many ropes, and everything plays out in the offhand, overheard manner of scenes from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Then it’s the “present day.” Absent-minded professor of anthropology Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) can’t keep an audience in their seats for his lecture, mainly on the (long, long outmoded) theory that the Pharaohs of Egypt’s IVth Dynasty didn’t build pyramids. He’s met by an elderly woman, Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors), whom we saw as a child in the 1928 scene. She whisks the easily-distracted scientist off to a mountain in Colorado.
Meanwhile, we meet Col. Jonathan “Jack” O’Neil, now resigned from the service, grieving over the recent death of his young son. You see, this aside is to give “grounding purpose” to O’Neil’s character. Traveling across space in the wink of an eye isn’t enough; there has to be Emotional Baggage, so a dead child is hung around the professional soldier’s neck. This cheap tripe is what “suits” in Hollywood think is necessary to this kind of movie.
Almost as soon as Jackson walks in the high tech door and down the high tech hallways, he’s put to work translating hieroglyphics, or something. He translates them as swiftly as a bilingual French student could translate French into English. O’Neil, with his hair now in a butch cut, is also there, and not impressed by Jackson.
They want Jackson to translate the engraved symbols on that ring, now free of its stone jacked and revealed in its tall, metal glory, a bit like a bicycle wheel without the tire or spokes. Almost immediately, Jackson figures out the last detail that no one else could understand. So when seven symbols are dialed, as on a phone, on this giant “Stargate,” it will take people to another galaxy.
The movie is based not on scientific fact or reasonable speculation, but on third-grade misapprehensions. Constellations do not denote points in space; they’re sheer happenstance, illusions viewable only from our solar system. A lightyear or more away, and Orion wouldn’t have his belt. But this movie insists that constellations are the way to navigate around not just our galaxy, but others as well, galaxies from which the individual stars that make up constellations wouldn’t even be visible. But these are the rules devised by Devlin and Emmerich. They want their heroes to travel about using a giant telephone dial.
Again, it seems almost immediately after his arrival that Jackson, who has funny allergies ha ha, is following O’Neil and his chosen Marines through that big ring. This is after one, count ‘em one, probe has been sent through the gate and returned. There’s a sense of emergency about all this, as if something terrible was going to happen and only this trip to the other planet would forestall it.
But there is no emergency, and all this haste seems foolish and reckless. It also requires the resident genius, Jackson, to act like a complete fool. He assures O’Neil that of course he can get them back to Earth, but neglects to point out that he doesn’t have the all-important seventh symbol.
So once the team gets to the other world, which looks like a few acres of sand dunes, they’re stuck until they can find that symbol. But they’re not alone. There is a very large group of people—improbably large; what do they eat? where do they get their water?—mining away for Ra, their god. The movie is rife with Egyptian mythology, mostly I suppose because Egyptians were so cool and stuff and so many people firmly believe they accomplished all sorts of things that such “primitive” couldn’t have done without outside help. This requires believing they were stupider than we are, a highly unlikely proposition.
An opening narration explains that the pyramidical ship was captained by a very long-lived but evidently egomaniacal alien who was running out of life. So he took over the body of that boy in the opening scene, and now he’s Ray (Jaye Davidison), the merciless ruler of whatever this place is.
So our tough gang of Marines and a doofus of a scientist decide to help the locals, who are under the cruel thumb of Ra. It’s swell at Jackson finds an attractive woman, Sha’uri (Mili Avital) and son-less O’Neil becomes fond of Skaara (Alexis Cruz), a boy a bit older than his late son. See how symmetrical it all is? That’s art. Or something.
Somewhat unexpectedly, “Stargate” was reasonably popular. This enabled Emmerich and Devil to get financing for “Independence Day,” while “Stargate” itself was spun off into what seems likely to be a Star Trek-like endless line of TV series, featuring the O’Neil and Jackson characters. First came “Stargate SG 1,” a couple of TV movies, then the current “Stargate Atlantis.”
If you like those shows, you’ll probably enjoy this movie, but if you don’t enjoy this movies, I can’t imagine why you’d even consider watching those shows. For the first half hour or so, “Stargate” seems lively and entertaining; the character of Jackson couldn’t possibly be a more woeful, obvious stereotype, but Spader has a grand time in the role. Russell just looks glum and serious most of the time, so much so that he generates bad laughs. After the opening half hour, the movie stalls almost dead; there’s very little action, there’s a great deal of talk—some of it in what passes for untranslated Egyptian—and too many trips from the temple where the Stargate at this end is located and the peculiarly vertical town nearby.
But if this is to your taste, this high-definition Blu-Ray disc, with excellent sound and increased detail, is the way to go. Your way. Not mine.