Today, when one thinks of director Roland Emmerich, images of flaming cities, hysterical acting, ubiquitous marketing, and paper-thin plots spring immediately to mind. Back in 1994, Emmerich was only in the process of building his name, creating movies such as “Moon 44” and “Universal Soldier” -- minor league genre scrappers that showed more technical prowess and entertainment value than anyone was expecting. Then came “Stargate,” a film financed outside of the Hollywood system and saddled with ill-fitting blockbuster aspirations for a feature with very little pre-release buzz or sellable premise. Ending up a sleeper hit of the autumn season, “Stargate” overcame the odds because, well, it’s a delightful, exciting, distinct adventure film crafted by Emmerich with what would be his very last of welcome tentative touches.Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a gauche Egyptologist, has been summoned to a secret military base for reasons not immediatley made clear. Casually deciphering hieroglyphic codes top minds have been unable to crack, Jackson is allowed access to the Stargate, a massive circular structure able to access vast reaches of the galaxy via wormholes, if dialed correctly. Teamed up with gruff Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) and a small band of grunts, Jackson passes through the Stargate, arriving on a strange planet ruled by the merciless god, Ra (Jaye Davidson). Endearing himself to the local slaves, Jackson seeks to comprehend this intriguing new land, finding a native (Mili Avital) willing to assist his efforts. However, O’Neil has his orders, ready to blow the planet to pieces once the Stargate is reopened to prevent Ra’s wrath from reaching Earth.
"The movie that launched a horde of boring TV shows"
Stewed in the juices of classic ‘80’s sci-fi thrill rides and, to a certain homemade extent, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Stargate” is such a completely oddball film at first glance. Here, James Spader is hired to be one of the heroes, gender-bending Jaye Davidson is the epitome of evil, and the spastic blend of lasers and pyramids takes some time to adjust to. I prefer to see the material as a unique thumbprint for Emmerich and his partner-in-crime, producer/writer Dean Devlin. Made just before the massively successful “Independence Day” started to bend their antennae, “Stargate” runs on a full tank of gallant enthusiasm, showcasing two hungry Hollywood dreamers allowed to make an epic with a semi-epic budget. Emmerich and Devil weren’t going to blow this rare opportunity. The flop sweat courses through the film’s veins.
“Stargate,” with its contrast between classic Egyptian iconography and “Star Wars” high adventure, is quite an ingenious bit of hokum. Cleverly written as a thick-skulled summer movie, the film is fully aware of itself, looking to gift the viewer a rollicking experience of explosions, extreme alien encounters, and sun-caked melodrama, using the polar opposite cinematic postures of Spader (stealing the film with his nerdy idiosyncrasy) and Russell to wonderful effect. It’s a story of heroes and villains, with Emmerich using the alien landscape superbly, not only through stunning cinematography, but also to develop an enticing haze of mystery around Ra, who deploys vibrating energy bursts to torture his enemies, controlling the land through illiteracy and an army of boomstick-wielding warriors. The Crayola-outlined characters help the filmmakers attain cartwheeling Saturday-matinee standards, where “Stargate” is most comfortable and effective.
However, as colorfully illustrated a world as it is, Emmerich and Devlin don’t milk the possibilities with an expected forcefulness. Once secure in alien territory, it’s not all gun fights and scripted sass. The filmmakers pull back some to incorporate the community of slaves, giving Jackson a love interest and O’Neil a payoff to his domestic misery. Scenes of bonding and community acceptance slow the film down some, keeping matters from the blazing fun of the desert or inside Ra’s perilous pyramids. The subplots have a purpose, just not a tempo.Matters pick up considerably for the grand finale, where Jackson and O’Neil hope to outwit Ra and keep Earth safe from a possible second visit. It’s a wild capper on a dynamite sci-fi odyssey. Back in 1994, “Stargate” was a huge question mark, leaving it a rare opportunity to impress without suffocating expectation. The film has matured wonderfully, sustaining as a curious genre exercise in blockbuster yearn marked by surprising buoyancy, madly entertaining performances, and a fertile cinematic imagination behind the camera not yet corrupted by massive box office success.
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originally posted: 11/07/09 01:13:21