The strange thing about Stargate (1994) is that the first thing that comes to mind is the TV series, but the film that inspired it seems rather forgotten. The series Stargate SG-1 of course has a lot going for it, especially the actors Richard Dean Anderson (Jack O’Neill) and Christopher Judge (Teal’c). They can still be found sitting around at conventions all over the world. But the film Stargate doesn’t seem to have entered the public consciousness as much. It came out in that era of blockbusters that gave us Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1996). Many can still quote these movies, but what is it about Stargate that made it slip from people’s minds? Was it simply eclipsed by the TV show? Or was it simply not as good?
It opens up with a great cinematic score by David Arnold, a composer who went on to score Independence Day in much the same vein. And a flashback that shows Egyptians digging up the stargate in the desert, and that whole scene looks taken from Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park, including a Norwegian Richard Attenborough and a choir to accompany our first glimpse of the gate. But director Roland Emmerich is no Steven Spielberg (even though he mimics him) and Emmerich’s sensibilities lead him to create blunt films. Just like his film Independence Day, two years later, Stargate has a decent build-up of anticipation and character, but, also like that film, it is terribly simplistic in its storytelling.
The film has its production and set design, but its big handicap is its characters. Kurt Russell plays a moody, taciturn Colonel O’Neill, and James Spader the scientist Daniel Jackson. It is not just that Russell is very hard to identify with here, and that Spader is rather annoying, but the characters in the TV series were just so much better than this. Russell seems to play on auto-pilot and doesn’t show the dry wit that Anderson had in the series. Spader is a bit uncomfortable to watch, as if he is always somewhere else in his mind. The actors are not of a lower caliber than, say, Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, but the script of Stargate doesn’t give them any memorable lines.
Only the alien god Ra, played by Jaye Davidson, is a memorable character, and a great villain. His portrayal was a benchmark for the villains of the TV series. Young and slightly androgynous looking, Davidson is subtle and sly, with dark undercurrents of evil power.
On second viewing, or third or… it’s a relief that Emmerich did not went overboard with special effects as he did in later films. Much of the visual elements, such as the gate itself and the alien planet with the strange creatures and the middle-eastern city are physical props of good quality. Even more than two decades later, it holds up pretty well. There are also some Star Wars echoes in the desert scenes.
Stargate doesn’t exactly squander its potential, but it is hurt by a simplistic, paint-by-numbers script with uninteresting characters. It never shows that spark of inspiration that makes a blockbuster stick in the mind and become part of a wider culture. Only the TV series increased its visibility by refusing to wrap up after a few seasons. That said, Stargate is a decent enough SF flick, especially in its first hour, that does a lot of things right. Its reimagining of ancient Egyptian gods has some flair.