Before he became the king of disaster porn, manufacturing more and more outlandish ways of destroying the planet and all the people on it, Roland Emmerich was trying to become the master of mediocre sci-fi. He built his still questionable resume on the back of such hack classics as Making Contact, Moon 44, and Universal Soldier and it was on this latter bit of Jean-Claude Van Damme-age that he met future collaborator Dean Devlin. Together, the duo would embark on a solid set of schlock masterworks, including the ridiculously ripe Independence Day, the goofy Godzilla remake, and perhaps the most notorious speculative nonsense of all – Stargate. While many now know the name thanks to its tired TV series retread, Emmerich first hit considered commercial paydirt with this specious interstellar claptrap involving aliens in pyramid shaped spaceships, Chariots of the Gods, Egyptology, and a US military team doing a bit of manufactured worm hole spelunking.
You see, several centuries ago, aggressive ETs landed on Earth and absorbed as much ancient culture as possible, including the physical image of comely caveboy Jaye “The Crying Game” Davidson. Fast forward to present day and James Spader is a Erich von Däniken wannabe who believes the pyramids were built by visiting space travelers. Just as he is being booed offstage at a science seminar, he is given a chance to work for Uncle Sam and decipher the symbols on an unusual object found in the Middle Eastern desert. It turns out he opens up a ‘stargate’, a way to travel between far off cosmic worlds. With Kurt Russell in tow as a military man recently reinstated after a personal tragedy, a reconnaissance team travels through the portal and ends up on a backward planet where everyone is a slave, building yet another set of pyramids (that function as starship ports) for the same despotic alien race that traveled to Earth eons before.
No matter how you slice it – original theatrical version or retrofitted director’s cut (complete with nine minutes of additional footage), Stargate is silly. It’s backwards science as up to date falderal, an episode of that ’70s staple In Search of… dragged out to wholly demented ends. In the commentary track and bonus features offered on the brand new 15th Anniversary Edition DVD and Blu-ray, Emmerich makes it very clear that he wanted to take an unconventional approach to this film – unconventional casting, unconventional plotting, unconventional subtexts. That’s why indie Method man Spader is sparring side by side with Snake Plissken himself, why the interstellar natives speak in a weird foreign tongue that never gets translated, and why we find ourselves shaking our head in rather conventional disbelief. It does make for some inherently goofy charms, especially when both of our leading men fall for emotional substitutes (Spader, the hot chick – Russell, the son he recently lost).
But that doesn’t prepare you for the outright audacity of the movie’s design. Even if you grant that the pyramids seem like the work of extraterrestrials, seeing it actually play out is a lot like looking backstage at a magic show. Once you realize how it’s done, it doesn’t seem quite so amazing any more. Similarly, the minimal CG used to mechanically remove the alien’s elaborate Pharaoh inspired headgear looks incredibly dated. Granted, Emmerich’s attempts at being epic does give Stargate some scope, especially when Spader and Russell investigate the huge triangular structure set against a three satellite sky in a endless sand dune milieu. But its big ideas that make sci-fi sing, and in the case of this blasé boy’s adventure tale, we are dealing with junior high conceits at best.
The notion that highly evolved space travelers would enslave indigenous people’s simply to build their landing stations seems surreal. After, they manufacture these amazing flying ships – why do they need manual labor to construct its dock. Similarly, Russell and the gang sure get the peoples restless in a hurry. One moment, they are talisman wearing gods. The next, they’re Angela Davis in designer fatigues. The last act assault on Jaye Davidson’s stronghold seems unlikely to succeed, and the whole “regeneration” subplot seems stuck in if only to provide a third act out in case one of our leads bites the big one (hmm…I wonder if they do…). While there is a restless sense of fun flowing in between all the UFO sturm and drang, Stargate is really nothing more than the Discovery Channel gone gonzo.
Of course, if you believe the added content stored on the various home video incarnations of the title, there is a lot of “truth” behind the decidedly dumb movie. We get experts popping in and out of the picture-within-a-picture information featurettes, each one explaining concepts that were debunked back when Jimmy Carter was still slinging peanuts. As they sit in their smug superiority, interplanetary backdrop providing a small modicum of ComicCon credibility, we realize that someone might actually think Stargate serious, that buried in Spader’s paycheck cashing casualness, in Russell’s buzzcut bravado, Emmerich and Devlin are actually championing ancient astronauts. It puts a whole new perspective on the film, one that falls far outside the typical big budget blockbuster effort we actually see. Serious support is one thing. Stargate, however, cannot solidify such speculation.
Still, this is a decent little diversion, the kind of pure popcorn fodder that would find a far more ballsy form when Will Smith took on city-sized flying saucers in Independence Day. Indeed, one can see Stargate as a warm-up for all the Day(s) After Tomorrow to come. While its F/X are not as eye-popping as they were 15 years ago, and the premise has been peeled apart and reconfigured to fuel a more or less unnecessary TV take on same, what we have here is a prime example of cinematic cheese – fatty, slightly nutritious, and capable of deep satisfaction if served correctly Roland Emmerich has made an entire career out of such highfalutin fromage – and we, as a gullible, guilty pleasure appreciating audience just can’t get enough.