Sunday, October 27, 2019

25 Years Later: Stargate (1994)

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.

In movie-based terms, Stargate is the film that landed Emmerich on the map in A-list Hollywood.  Although Emmerich had already directed Universal Soldier (1992), Stargate quickly proved a massive, world-wide hit, and paved the way for the director’s busy career, which has included such films as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 10,000 BC (2008), and 2012 (2010). 

Frankly, I don’t regard the bulk of Emmerich’s oeuvre in very positive terms.  Despite the bad reviews it received on release, Stargate likely dominates even today as the best Emmerich sci-fi film in the aforementioned pack. In part that’s because the film’s opening act is so engaging, and it builds up a real sense of anticipation, mystery, and excitement.

Not that a number of critics would agree with that assessment.

Roger Ebert awarded Stargate one star (out of four) and derided the film’s use of “action movie clichés.” Hal Hinson at The Washington Post felt that the film degenerated by the end into “routine pyrotechnics,” and The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mike LaSalle termed the film “imitation Spielberg” that “crashed inside 20 minutes.”  

Probably all of those comments are accurate to some degree.  The movie is indeed girded with action movie clichés, it does resolve with fireballs and pyrotechnics, and Stargate plays, at points, like low-grade Spielberg.  The film’s first half-hour is also undeniably its strongest. 

And yet, in spite of these admittedly on-the-mark criticisms, Stargate is a hell of a lot of fun.  .

In part, that fun emerges from the cast’s dedicated and sometimes herculean efforts.  James Spader plays the comedy and wonder aspects of the tale wittily, while Kurt Russell – acting as though he’s starring in a hard-boiled John Carpenter or Howard Hawks adventure – brilliantly essays the role of laconic but tortured Colonel O’Neil. 

And although Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game [1992]) remains a decidedly unconventional choice for a primary villain -- being delicate and androgynous rather than physically menacing in the conventional sense -- the very unpredictability of his physical presence adds to the film’s sense of menace, as well as the villain’s unique decadence and obsession with youth and beauty.  Davidson’s Ra is bizarre, but also incredibly sinister.

I remember when I first screened Stargate in the theater in October of 1994. There was much talk that it was “the next Star Wars.”  

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. 

In other words, Stargate works on a crowd-pleasing, blockbuster level, and in this case, that’s more than enough.  The film has been assaulted as being stupid on many occasions, but in some fashion Stargate is very canny in how it manipulates the audience and audience expectations. It’s a film about guns winning the day, and yet it also delivers an anti-gun message, underneath. It’s a film that reveals the Ancient Astronauts, not mankind, achieved wonders in our antiquity, and yet the film also showcases modern man confronting those astronauts and proving his worth. 

In short, Stargate boasts a great premise, some terrific production design, capable actors who are clearly having fun, and enough sci-fi gadgetry to, well, sturdily launch a franchise.  I should probably add that the film absolutely plays like high-art in comparison to underwhelming and even laughable Emmerich fare such as 10,000 BC or 2012.

“I created your civilization. Now I will destroy it.”

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.

Jackson and a team of soldiers, led by Colonel O’Neil (Russell), travel through the stargate and find a barren desert world where human slaves toil to build a pyramid for a “God” called Ra (Davidson).  With the help of a beautiful local, Sha’uri (Mili Avital), Jackson learns Ra’s story. He is a ruthless alien being who survived his race’s extinction and went out into the galaxy seeking a way to extend his life.

Ra found that way on ancient Earth by possessing the body of a young man, and setting himself up as a God.  The primitive people were amazed by Ra’s technology, and fell in line.  But a group of slaves rebelled against the alien king’s authority, and Ra’s stargate to Earth was buried and forgotten, so he could no longer return.

Now, Ra – who possesses the power to resurrect the dead – plans to punish Earth for that long ago rebellion and its recent incursion.  O’Neil has brought a bomb through the Stargate to destroy any threats, and now Ra plans to send it back…to destroy the planet.

Jackson and O’Neil must not only find a way home now, they must help the humans of this faraway planet defeat Ra, and save the Earth in the process.

So you think you've solved in fourteen days what they couldn't solve in two years? 

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. 

Primitive man thus perceived the builders – aliens – as “Gods.”  Von Daniken interpreted stories from the Old Testament (like Ezekiel’s description of a ship of angels in the Old Testaments) as being literal stories of alien encounters and incursions.

Von Daniken’s ideas have found significant currency in science fiction television and cinema over the decades since Chariots of the Gods was published.  Battlestar Galactica (1978) and The Phoenix (1982) both traded on the idea of ancient astronauts and “brothers of man” in space.  More recent films such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Knowing (2009) also developed these Von Daniken-esque notions.  The upcoming Prometheus (2012) also appears as though it will mine this idea rather thoroughly: that aliens visited man in antiquity and helped shape his future and his very world.

The appeal of these stories (and thus the appeal of Stargate) rests on twin concepts.  First, that we are not alone in the universe.  And secondly, that we are intimately connected with the alien races out there, existing beyond the stars.  Meeting these alien races, we are faced with the resolution of a mystery that connects our most distant past to our immediate future.  The promise is that we will join our cosmic brothers one day, and with a full understanding of where we came from.  In other words, the key to knowing who and what we really are rests on contacting the ancient peoples who set our culture in motion.  In space, then, we find our both our origin and our ultimate destination as a species.

The first twenty-three minutes or so of Stargate, -- the film’s strongest -- tread deeply into such ancient mysteries.  Who built the pyramids? Why were they built?  And what can we learn from the Ancients? 

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. 

This part of the film races by with intrigue, humor and excitement. The sense of anticipation, of wonder, is palpable.  Spader proves especially strong here as the audience surrogate and as a committed detective.   Jackson’s obsession with “knowing” becomes the audience’s obsession thanks to Spader’s enthusiastic portrayal, and his self-deprecating sense of humor.  A lot of this could seem like dry, dull exposition, but Spader makes the material riveting to watch, and colors it with his character's idiosyncrasies.

Once the Stargate is discovered and activated, however, the film gets mired down in familiar-seeming desert terrains and the like.   After the visually-amazing “ultimate trip” to another planet, it’s a little disconcerting to come down to Earth, literally, and see familiar sand dunes and sky.  And watching Jackson and O’Neil encounter a city of primitive slaves is not exactly heart-pounding. 

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. 

When Ra is finally introduced, he isn’t at all what we expect.  But in an action film, that kind of surprise can be a good thing, indeed.  We expect a seven-foot tall monster -- a Darth Vader, perhaps -- and are instead presented with a wispy, lithe, uncomfortable presence in Jaye Davidson.  Ra lives inside a human form, so it’s appropriate that we feel ambivalent about his appearance. We don’t know how to process him, at least not initially.  Is he male? Female?  Some strange combination of both?   

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.

Action films made today depend a great deal on quick cutting and herky-jerky, hand-held camera moves to transmit a sense of urgency.  However, the over twenty-year old Stargate plays as refreshingly retro during its accomplished action scenes. The film builds a sense of pace and immediacy through cross-cutting, first between two opposing scenes, and then, finally, between three.  

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. 

In these moments, Russell quietly dominates, and all eyes reflexively turn to him.  Even if the script doesn’t exactly give the actor emotional layers to explore, Russell’s taciturn approach suggests a contemplative mind at work, a man silently watching and reacting to everything happening around him.

Perhaps Stargate seems less-than-impressive mainly in several canned, off-the-shelf moments.  O’Neil’s subplot about losing a son is all-too-familiar in this genre, for example, but Russell’s sincerity in vetting it makes it less-than groan-worthy.  His expressive, guilt-ridden eyes go a long way towards making the commonly-seen trope seem powerful and new again. 

Not so strong, however, is the moment -- rendered in over-the-top slow motion photography -- when one of the rebellious slave youngsters goes down in a blaze of glory, and the last we see of him is a tumbling army helmet.  It feels like a moment that would be right at home in Team America: World Police (2004).

Another moment – a trade of salutes between the former slaves and O’Neil – also plays as eminently cheesy and way over-the-top.  You’ve got to wonder why a film that can foster a sense of wonder (in the first twenty-minutes), transmit a strong sense of menace (at the hour point), and convey strong action (at the climax), feels the need to go schmaltzy and sentimental in conclusion.   I suppose it’s just Hollywood: a land where implication isn’t enough and you must be spoon-fed “emotions” so you know EXACTLY how to feel all the time.  It’s insulting.

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.

Although I have distinct memories of the late Gene Roddenberry complaining about the ancient astronaut theory because it failed to take into account human intelligence and human ingenuity, Stargate actually possesses a commendably optimistic streak too.  Humankind here is ready to confront its former gods.  Primitive superstition is behind us.

Of course, on the other hand, both Ra and the military men of Earth still attempt to dominate situations through violent means: with bombs, guns and other weapons of destruction.  We may not literally be slaves anymore, but even as advanced as we are, we’re still slaves to our destructive (and self-destructive) impulses.  

Stargate is never quite smart enough to square that circle.

Still, this is one of those “big” sci-fi movies where it helps if you allow yourself to get swept up by the bigness of it all.  The bigness of the soundtrack. Of the performances. Of the (high) concept. Of the desert vistas. And of the special effects. 

If you do let yourself succumb to all of that impressive eye candy, Stargate is a film of wonder, humor, imagination, and not a small degree of charm.

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