Dir. by Roland Emmerich
Starring Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson
Egyptologist and conspiracy-theorist Daniel Jackson is hired by the government to translate a series of hieroglyphs on a stone unearthed in Giza in the 20s. When he succeeds, he learns that they are the code to activate a portal to the other side of the universe. Traveling with a team of soldiers to investigate the destination planet, Jackson becomes entangled in a revolution by the humans living on that planet against their alien overlords, who have taken the guises of the Egyptian deities.
I’m almost positive that I saw this movie in the theaters. I don’t actually remember having done so, but it’s exactly the sort of movie I would have gone to see. If it wasn’t in the theaters, I certainly saw it on Pay-Per-View the next year. We taped it off of TV, and the Extended Cut DVD is one of the first I can remember buying when I was in college and got my first DVD player. I had several friends who were obsessed with the TV show at the time, but I never really watched it while it was airing. Saw the first couple of seasons on DVD about a decade ago now, and that’s about it.
How the hell did this movie start a franchise that’s lasted for 25 years? There’s been three TV shows, two direct-to-DVD movies, and a web series, all stemming from this action B-movie from the guys who brought you Geostorm and The Day After Tomorrow. What did this movie have that so many other mid-90s movies didn’t?
I think what it had going for it, more than anything else, was its setting and design. This movie came out in 1994, at a time when CG was beginning to take over the film world. Sci-fi movies were big, and there hadn’t been a big, traditional fantasy movie since NeverEnding Story II in 1990, four years earlier. While this isn’t, strictly speaking, a fantasy movie, the ancient Egyptian trappings give it much more of a time-traveling portal fantasy feel than most of the other sci-fi movies of the time. It was something different and unexpected.
It also helps that the movie has two strong leads. An almost unrecognizably young James Spader, of The Blacklist fame, plays Daniel Jackson as a nerdy scientist who’s incredibly competent in his field, but is completely out of his depth in most other situations. As a very nerdy kid myself, who’d later be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I saw a lot of myself in Jackson, and immediately empathized with him. Despite his social awkwardness, Spader manages to imbue Jackson with some of the same quirky humor that he would later bring to Alan Shore on Boston Legal. In one of the more memorable scenes in the movie Jackson, in an attempt to communicate to the planet’s citizens that the disgusting-looking food they’ve given him tastes like chicken, flaps his arms up and down and makes clucking noises repeatedly. Everyone – slave and Earth soldier alike – just stares at him. It’s equal parts endearing and cringe-inducing, but goes a long way to making Jackson an actual person instead of a character defined by his job or role in the film.
The same can be said for Kurt Russell as Col. O’Neil. The role could have just been played as a hard-ass military commander, and that’s what he seems to be for the first couple of scenes at the base and on the planet. However, he’s introduced in a depressive state, with his son having recently died in an accidental shooting. As the movies goes on, Russell brings in not only the sadness that one might expect with such a background, but also the anger. His Russell is bitter and self-destructive, but not in a way that he’s willing to take down the rest of his men with him. While I enjoyed Richard Dean Anderson in the role in what I saw of the TV series, I think that his portrayal is barely the same character as what we see in the movie, rounding off all of the sharp edges of his personality and making him a more lighthearted individual. It works for the show, but I don’t think it would have for the movie.
Now, the setting does bring up legitimate concerns about Orientalism. The movie essentially revolves around the (already existing at the time) conspiracy theory that all of the great works of ancient Egypt were completed with alien assistance. Because, of course, a culture from that part of the world wouldn’t have been able to do it on their own. No, the pyramids were just landing docks for alien spacecraft, and all of Egyptian culture is based on lies and manipulation. And it takes the arrival of the strong, Western military power to free the backwards, tribal slaves from their oppressors *eyeroll* (though, in the movie’s defense, they were deliberately kept in that state by the aliens. The script wisely incorporates two millennia of linguistic drift and doesn’t have them speaking an existing dialect, and you could posit that there would have been a corresponding 2000-year tech increase if not for alien intervention).
So yeah, the cultural politics of Stargate aren’t great. Also complicating matters is the casting of Jaye Davidson as the villain Ra. He had just come off of his debut performance as a transgender woman in the movie The Crying Game, a performance for which he’d received a Best Supporting Actor nomination. His role here is obviously playing up that association, deliberately going for a very young, androgynous look for the utterly evil alien. That this movie came out the same year as Ace Ventura, a movie also inspired by The Crying Game for its negative portrayal of a transgender woman, makes me convinced that the filmmakers were going for the same thing. It was actually enough to get Jaye Davidson to quit acting altogether after this movie.
Fortunately for the franchise, from what I remember the TV show’s more complicated mythology manages to help alleviate this problem somewhat, though there are definitely individual episodes that are still cringe-worthy in an early TNG way (I’m looking at you, “Emancipation”). I’m not sure I could recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already seen it, especially if you’re sensitive to Orientalism or white savior narratives. I still enjoyed the movie, however, despite its more obvious flaws, though that enjoyment has drifted more into the “guilty pleasure” status over the years.
-One thing I definitely can’t fault the movie for is its score. I really like David Arnold’s music, especially the main title theme, which they’d use for the TV series as well.
-My roommate in college was from Colorado Springs, which is where the real complex that the Stargate team is fictionally located in resides. He always got great amusement from the fact that in real-life there’s a zoo sitting on top of the mountain the Stargate’s inside of.