Roland Emmerich’s Stargate (1994) is the movie that launched a thousand ships, or at least several hundred episodes of popular cult television.
As the initiator of the durable (though now dormant…) Stargate franchise, the film sets up a universe that, broadly-speaking, is based on the once-popular Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods (1968) notion that “God” is an ancient astronaut…an alien.
That kind of chatter proved to be hyperbole, and yet Stargate is a film that, somehow – and indeed a lot like Star Wars – is much more than the sum of its individual parts. The heroic theme music by David Arnold, the knowing performances from Russell and Spader, and the film’s strong action chops combine with the intriguing Von Daniken presence to render a film experience much more buoyant and enjoyable than it surely could have been.
Down-on-his-luck linguist and translator Daniel Jackson (Spader) is recruited by the Air Force to help translate an ancient Egyptian artifact, one unearthed in 1928, near the Great Pyramids. He determines that a series of symbols on the artifact represent not letters in an alphabet, but coordinates in outer space. The artifact is actually a stargate: a door connecting Earth to a world on the other side of the known galaxy.
Erich Von Daniken’s published works about “ancient astronauts” represented a major fad in the 1970s, even though the books were widely debunked and ridiculed by the scientific establishment. Von Daniken’s theory suggests that artifacts and constructs of the ancient world -- such as the Pyramids or Stonehenge -- are the works of advanced, star-faring aliens because humans of those historic eras did not possess the technology or skill to build them.
As Stargate opens, Dr. Jackson is asked to translate the symbols that will activate a stargate, the doorway to the other side of the known universe. The film lands the audience on Jackson’s side almost immediately, as he is ruthlessly mocked by his narrow-minded colleagues. Then, the audience shares Jackson’s excitement as he translates the alien language inscribed on a 10,000 year old alien device.
But by the time the first hour is over, Ra arrives and the film picks up again. Emmerich makes the most of the film’s unseen menace at this juncture.
In particular, he shoots an underground siege absolutely perfectly by utilizing P.O.V. shots. Members of O’Neil’s team are picked off one at a time, and we don’t see the hunters. Instead, the camera creeps up on the unsuspecting soldiers, and then the film cuts to their bodies being dragged off-screen by unseen creatures. It’s almost as though we’ve shifted gears into a horror movie, and the grunting, inhuman sound effects of Ra’s soldiers augment the idea of a terrifying, unknown presence. Even the final, momentous reveal of these minions remains quite powerful. Looking at these glowing eyes, metal-headed soldiers, it’s easy to see how man could misinterpret them to be Gods.
Impressively, Jaye Davidson conveys a sense of both uncomfortable beauty and absolute malevolence at the same time. He may look beautiful on the surface, but his eyes and movements pulsate with a brand of wickedness that suggests the alien’s true nature.
Again, there’s something to be said for choosing an atypical direction in a spectacular like Stargate. The filmmakers might have cast a bulky strong-man as Ra, but their selection of the slight, whisper-thing Davidson unhinges matters a bit. The story becomes almost instantly more unpredictable because there is a sense in watching Davidson that we don’t know what he is, literally, and therefore what he will do. On the few occasions that his alien features shine through his skin, we get a sense of the diabolical Ra’s inner ugliness.
The approach generates a strong sense of momentum leading into the climax, and it’s carefully-wrought. It helps too, no doubt, to have the muscular, steely-eyed Russell fronting an action scene. No one in the film is made out to be a superhero, and there’s something refreshingly human and tenacious about the way Colonel O’Neil just dukes it out, punch-after-punch, with Ra’s muscle-bound minion. I admire this scene because it doesn’t rely on special effects (except for the macabre punctuation…) or even wild (but improbable) stunts. Instead, it’s just an old-fashioned slug-fest.
I would like to comment again -- as I have in the past – about at what an absolutely great leading man Russell is. His O’Neil is distinctly different from his Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, or MacReady in The Thing. There’s a kind of retro, non-showy grittiness in Russell’s performance here. The film features a number of scenes during which he stands back in the corner of a frame and just silently smokes a cigarette, an act which is pretty unusual in mid-1990s cinema but which reminds one of Humphrey Bogart or some other leading man of yesteryear.
Despite such missteps, Stargate is nimble in its special effects (especially the depiction of the stargate itself) and boasts a nice through-line about technology. Technology doesn’t necessarily make one superior, at least in the long run, the film seems to state. Here, the slave community comes together to stop Ra (just as slaves did on Earth, in antiquity), and the idea that gets conveyed is that we succeed when we work together.