Thursday, March 27, 2014

"Stargate" (1994)

Starring James Spader, Kurt Russell and Jaye Davidson
Written by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 128 Minutes

Disgraced archaeologist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is given the chance of a lifetime when the United States Air Force hires him to translate a set of mysterious hieroglyphics found on a set of stones decades earlier in Egypt. Beneath those stones, Jackson learns, was an alien device also covered in strange symbols.

When Jackson discovers that the symbols are star constellations, the Air Force is able to activate the device that Jackson translates as "stargate" and use it to travel across the universe to an alien world. A special forces team led by Colonel Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell) makes the trek to this strange new world, taking Jackson along with them.

Once on the other side, however, they discover that their ride home won't be as simple: Jackson can't locate the symbols he needs in order to dial the stargate back to Earth. The team finds that the humans of this world are slaves who still worship the Egyptian sun god, Ra (Jaye Davidson). They are led by Kasuf (Erick Avari), who is devout in his belief that Ra is a god, and is also frightened beyond reason by him.

Kasuf's daughter, Sha'uri (Mili Avital) is given to Jackson as a gift, and the two begin to fall for each other. Kasuf's son Skaara (Alexis Cruz) forms a bond with O'Neil, who has recently lost his own son.

When Ra appears to collect his latest shipment of ore from his slaves, Jackson, O'Neil and the team are drawn into fostering a revolution among a people who have only ever known fear, yet who dream of freedom.

Before it plowed through 17 seasons of cable television, "Stargate" began as a moderately successful feature film from the team that would, a couple years later rock the world by bringing us "Independence Day" - Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich.

The "Stargate" film is a flawed but rather entertaining experience - especially revisiting it after having seen the TV series it spawned. The first half of the film is quite compelling. It has a sense of wonder (helped in no small part by David Arnold's excellent film score), and it takes its time building up the premise and the world. The concept of an alien posing as the sun god Ra is a fun one, and the film plays well with it.

The second half, however, feels almost like an entirely different film. Much of the wonder disappears, replaced with rather standard (albeit fun) action movie stuff. Jackson and O'Neil prove themselves worthy action heroes as they help incite Kasuf's people to rise up against Ra and his powerful minions Anubis and Horus.

Emmerich shows his technical ability as an action director in the back half of the film, with a number of set pieces that are well made. It all works, and the film remains entertaining, but it ultimately becomes very predictable. It almost feels like there are two different movies here starring the same characters.

Still, there's a lot to like. The designs and special effects are all great. The armor that Anubis and Horus wear is super cool (something I wish the TV series had done a better job with). The cast is having a good time; Kurt Russell seems to know how ridiculous this all is, but puts just enough serious effort into O'Neil when the script calls for it that it's not entirely a joke. Likewise, James Spader plays Jackson broadly but reins it in just enough for it to be entertaining. He comes off as bookish and intelligent, and as he often is, remains entirely watchable.

"Stargate" has its problems, but there's enough entertainment here for it to remain a good time years after its release - and enough potential to justify the TV series that followed it. Fans of the show who haven't seen the film might be put off by some of the differences, but should still find a lot to like here.