Stargate (1994) **½
I hope you’re seated comfortably. I’m about to do something so completely out of character that it might even make me faint to see it. I’m about to give a guardedly favorable review to a Dean Devlin-Roland Emmerich movie. Whoa, whoa— come on… deep, measured breaths, okay? I’m all out of smelling salts here. Slowly… Slowly… That’s it. Believe me, no one’s more stunned about this than I am. Hell, when I saw the commercials for Stargate way back in 1994, a good two years before I’d ever heard of Devlin or Emmerich, I thought it looked like a crass pile of shit in what I would eventually come to know as those men’s signature style. And a sufficiently close examination of Stargate does indeed reveal most of the seeds of that style, just waiting to germinate. This was early in their partnership, though (only Universal Soldier preceded it), and neither one had the kind of box-office clout that gets blank checks written by studio heads with more money than sense. Also, the material didn’t lend itself to misplaced Irwin Allen idolatry, and between those two factors, Stargate ended up being surprisingly taught, sleek, and disciplined, and a good deal less hackneyed than anything the team would create thereafter.
This is not to say that Stargate is any smarter than the typical Devlin-Emmerich production, however, and it takes as its central premise an idea that infuriates me whenever I see it rear its head in popular culture— the condescending notion that ancient civilizations couldn’t possibly have been capable of creating wonders like Stonehenge, Angkor Wat, or the Nazca diagrams on their own, and that the presence of such monuments is proof of extraterrestrial intervention early in human history. We begin in Giza, in 1928, where a team of Egyptologists digging in the shadow of the Great Pyramids uncover two extremely strange artifacts. One is a great limestone disk engraved in a form of hieroglyphics that no one has ever seen before; the other is an even more enormous ring of some metallic mineral totally unknown to science, carved with great precision and inscribed with the same curious characters.
Some 65 years later, two men who have never heard of each other receive simultaneous unexpected visits from tight-lipped strangers. One of these is Colonel Jack O’Neil of the U.S. Air Force Special Forces (Kurt Russell, from The Thing and Grindhouse). O’Neil has been retired for some time, and is nearing the nadir of an emotional breakdown that began when his son shot and killed himself by accident— presumably with one of Dad’s guns. (Trust me, you’d rather not know how this bit of back-story eventually pays off.) The two officers who come to see him bear a message from O’Neil’s old commander, General West (Leon Rippy, of Eight Legged Freaks and Maximum Overdrive). Evidently the colonel is being called up for another tour of duty. The second man is linguist and Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader, from Alien Hunter and Wolf), who is giving a lecture claiming (on exceedingly flimsy grounds) that the Egyptians couldn’t possibly have built the pyramids when we meet him. His unasked-for guest is Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors, from These Are the Damned and Cauldron of Blood), whose father was one of the archeologists working in Giza in 1928. Langford wants to hire Jackson for a hush-hush project that has consumed years of her life, a project which she presents to Jackson as a chance to prove his pet theory about the pyramids once and for all.
By now, you’ve all probably guessed that Uncle Sam eventually came into possession of the mysterious Giza artifacts, and that the investigation into their nature and origin somehow came under the air force’s control. Langford wants Jackson to turn that giant brain of his to the problem of the strange, non-Egyptian-looking inscriptions (his capacity for doing so is suggested by his instant and off-the-top-of-his-head re-translation of an accompanying text in standard hieroglyphics), but that’s likely to be a tall order even for him. It isn’t just that the symbols aren’t Egyptian, you see. They also aren’t Persian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Chaldean, Phoenician, or any other known script of the ancient Middle East. In fact, it isn’t until Jackson sees a telescopic photograph of the night sky in the science page of a newspaper that he gets any idea at all what they might be— one of the characters is a stylized drawing of the constellation Orion! Consulting the most detailed star chart he can find, Jackson finds constellations or asterisms that correspond to five of the remaining six characters, and informs both his teammates and their military overseers that the six astronomical figures together form a set of coordinates defining a point far out in space. As it happens, they already suspected as much— they just didn’t know what the coordinates were. The seventh character (the significance of which had completely eluded Langford’s researchers) Jackson identifies as a drawing of a pyramid with the sun above its apex and a kneeling figure to either side. If the six other characters describe the point of destination, then the seventh describes the point of origin, the spot where the giant ring was found. It would seem that that “gate of heaven” (or “star gate,” as per Jackson’s re-translation) mentioned in the hieroglyphics on the stone is exactly what it says on the package (again, the air force suspected as much), and now Jackson has provided the key to its operation.
That’s where Colonel O’Neil comes in. Once it becomes apparent that Langford’s people might actually be able to make the stargate work, the whole project gets reclassified at the “nobody but Dick Cheney is allowed to know about it” level, and O’Neil is put in charge of the effort to figure out what’s on the other side. The first step is to send an automated rover through, but communications between one side of the gate and the other break down almost immediately. The rover sends off just enough data to let the folks back home know that there is a second gate at the debarkation point, and that it is inscribed with a different set of constellation symbols from those Jackson has already deciphered. That means the commando team O’Neil was supposed to lead across won’t be able to set the machine for the return trip, but Jackson is pretty sure he could do that for them if they took him along.
Unsurprisingly, what Jackson, O’Neil, and the commandos find on the other side of the gate looks exactly like ancient Egypt. The second gate is even in the basement of a pyramid. The soldiers reconnoiter a bit, both inside the pyramid and over the surrounding desert dunes, but after just a short while, O’Neil announces that everyone but him is to return through the stargate, on the basis of secret orders from General West. That’s not going to be possible, though, for there is no sign as yet of anything equivalent to the Giza stone either inside the pyramid or in its immediate vicinity. As Jackson reminds his horrified companions, it was the stone that made the trip through the stargate possible by providing the coordinates of the other world. Without a similar set of coordinates to program into the gate under the pyramid, Jackson has no way of making the machine work from this end. The only thing for it is for the explorers to do some actual exploring, in the hope of turning up Earth’s interstellar address. O’Neil’s soldiers sullenly assemble a base camp, making no secret of their blaming Jackson for their predicament while they’re at it.
It is perhaps fitting, then, that Jackson makes the discovery that starts the men back on the road to getting home. Having been effectively chased away from the camp until he has something halfway useful to offer, Jackson goes for a walk on the dunes, and he quickly notices what appears to be a line of footprints, such as might be made by a large animal. Following the tracks, he finds a creature that looks a bit like a cross between a pony and a yak, chewing nervously on a tiny patch of scrub. What makes this really significant is that the animal is wearing a harness, like a domesticated beast of burden, and Jackson excitedly points this out to O’Neil, Lieutenant Kawalski (John Diehl, from Female Perversions and The Dark Side of the Moon), and Lieutenant Ferretti (French Stewart) when they decide he’s been gone long enough and come looking for him. Unfortunately, Jackson’s excitement is so great that his hollering spooks the animal, and it runs off at surprisingly great speed, dragging Jackson (who’d been standing with his foot planted right in the middle of its reins) along with it. O’Neil and the lieutenants pursue, and by the time the creature settles down and the three soldiers are able to catch up, there’s a big mining encampment just on the other side of the next dune. Jackson figures the people there might know how to work the stargate, so he leads his fellows into the camp. First contact is just a little on the tense side, but then a boy who will eventually be introduced as Skaara (Alexis Cruz, of Slayer and Spectres) notices the Eye of Horus pendant (misidentified throughout the movie as the Eye of Ra, by the way) that Catherine Langford gave to Jackson as a good luck charm, and the tone of the encounter changes completely. Soon everyone within sight of Jackson is prostrating himself on the ground, and one of the miners is running off to summon Kasuf (Erick Avari, from Independence Day and The 13th Warrior, looking for all the world like an aged George Pastell), the headman of the settlement. The local lingo isn’t close enough to any Jackson speaks for him to be sure of anything, but apparently these people worship the same pantheon as the ancient Egyptians, and the linguist’s necklace has given them the idea that the strangers have been sent to them by Amun Ra.
Things go fairly smoothly for the rest of the day. Kasuf takes the four Earthlings to the somewhat dilapidated city where his people live, and plies them with every entertainment at his disposal— even to the extent of furnishing Jackson (who, as the wearer of the gods’ emblem, must be the really special one among the outsiders) with a beautiful girl (Mili Avital) to attend upon him. (If you know what I mean, and Joe Bob Briggs thinks you do…) O’Neil is a big hit among Skaara and the other children, what with his commanding demeanor and his great array of neat stuff (cigarettes, Zippo lighter, binoculars, submachine gun). Sha’uri (Jackson’s good-time girl) even helps the linguist figure out that the extraterrestrials’ tongue is a dialect of ancient Egyptian, and shows him an underground chamber where the history of her people is inscribed upon the walls. Evidently Sha’uri’s distant ancestors were abducted from Earth by an alien being— the last of his kind— who incarnated himself into the body of a human, and thereby achieved immortality. This being, remembered as Amun Ra (and played by Jaye Davidson when he inevitably puts in a personal appearance a few scenes down the line), ruled the land that would become Egypt as both god and king for centuries, but was eventually overthrown by an uprising among his human subjects. Ra fled back to his homeworld, where he took steps to ensure that there would be no analogous rebellion among the humans he had transplanted there. He banned writing so as to keep the story of his defeat on Earth from being handed down (which kind of makes you wonder how Sha’uri can understand the significance of the writing in the chamber, let alone read it), and he dismantled the stargate to Earth, hiding the key to its operation. But since that’s in the chamber too, along with the Books of Exposition, it looks like Jackson will be able to reopen the stargate after all. O’Neil and his troops will have to wait a while, because a tremendous dust storm has descended on the area, cutting off all communications between the men in the alien city and the base camp back at the pyramid, but that’s a temporary hassle at worst. The huge, pyramidal spaceship that sets itself down right on top of the building housing the stargate, though? That hassle could easily become permanent.
Like I said earlier, the whole Erich von Danniken “Aliens built the Pyramids!” thing is one of my personal crazy-switches, so Stargate must be doing something right if it can use that as its primary story engine and still leave me liking the movie okay. As for what that something might be, let me start by observing that this movie represents possibly the one time in their entire creative lives when Devlin and Emmerich seemed to understand what it was about one of their films that would draw somebody to see it. Instead of promising us a giant monster and delivering a hackneyed reconciliation romance, or baiting us with an alien invasion before switching to maudlin family melodrama and naïve jingoism, Stargate really is the movie it seems to be from the posters, trailers, etc. Come here looking for space-aliens dressed up as ancient Egyptian gods, and that’s exactly what you’ll get. By setting the story almost completely on another planet, and including only one character who even sort-of speaks the language there, Devlin and Emmerich leave themselves no opportunity to bog down in the kind of soap-opera shenanigans that they’ve tended to favor in years since, nor do they allow themselves to employ their favorite trick of relegating the really cool-looking stuff that justifies the movie’s existence in the first place to just a handful of scenes at the beginning and end. Stargate’s scenario also neatly puts the kibosh on such distractions as Borsht-Belt ethnic humor, C-list celebrity cameos, or pop-culture reference-dropping of virtually any kind (all things that the present filmmakers would find unaccountably difficult to resist later in their careers). The comparatively lean two-hour running time (long by my standards, but still nearly half an hour shorter than Godzilla or Independence Day) helps, too, drastically narrowing the available window for wheel-spinning and time-killing— Stargate is just a little too busy getting from Point A to Point B to go wandering off to have a look at Points H, J, and K. And what might be the most important thing, by setting the great majority of Stargate in a purely imaginary world, Devlin and Emmerich limit the amount of trouble that they can get into via their immense and oft-displayed ignorance and incomprehension of how things are done in the real world. Since we apparently will not be so fortunate as to see them stop making movies altogether, then perhaps we can at least get lucky enough that they’ll take one or two of Stargate’s lessons to heart sometime in the future.