Film Review: ‘Stargate’

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Starring: Kurt Russell, James Spader

Original Release Date: October 1994

Review by Miriam Atkinson

All stories have to start somewhere and the Stargate Franchise owes its origins to a sci-fi film released to mixed reviews in October 1994.

By the time I finally saw Stargate I was already obsessed with Stargate Atlantis and had seen a fair amount of Stargate SG-1, so I was excited to see how the story began.

It starts many years ago when a mysterious ring (the Stargate) is uncovered in Egypt. Fast forward to the present day where we meet Dr Daniel Jackson (James Spader), an Egyptologist and archaeologist, who is trying to explain to his audience that the pyramids were built by aliens. From there Jackson is recruited by Dr Katherine Langford to help her team unlock the secrets of the Stargate. Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell), who is still suffering from the loss of his son, is tasked with leading a team through the activated Stargate. Jackson, O’Neil and a team of soldiers travel to and become trapped on Abydos, a desert planet whose human inhabitants are ruled over by Ra – an ancient being masquerading as a god. Jackson and O’Neil must find a way home before Ra and his followers find them.

Now what I’ve just described is just an overview. The film’s plot is filled with many more details and characters and relationships than I have space to describe in this review. However, when the film was released, one the criticisms it received was that its plot was too simple and therefore boring.

Now arguably the film is simple in the sense that we know which characters are the heroes and which are the villains. It is an adventure film where the characters journey from A to B and back to A (i.e. from Earth to Abydos to Earth again) just placed within a science fiction world. But having a plot that is easy to follow does not mean the film is boring – in fact far from it. The film keeps a steady pace until it reaches the action scenes, such as when our heroes fight Ra’s soldiers. This allows viewers of all ages to instantly understand what is happening on-screen as well as the various pieces of information we are given about this new world. Stargate has the task of first explaining to its audience what a Stargate is and then secondly to describe a newly invented race of aliens in an engaging and exciting way. I believe that one of the reasons why Stargate is enjoyable and re-watchable is because it is not weighed down by an overly-complicated plot like a lot of modern science-fiction films tend to do.

Image from: Gatecast.co.uk

Another criticism the film faced (and arguably still faces) is its bad CGI effects. Again I’m going to disagree with this point. Yes, the effects are dated. Stargate was made in 1994 so of course some of the effects, and admittedly all of the computer screen displays, look dated by modern standards but I certainly wouldn’t describe them as ‘bad’. I’ve seen some far worse examples of ‘bad CGI’ in films made in the last ten years. I actually think Stargate holds up pretty well and its many practical effects still look great.

One thing that can’t be denied it the great acting. My personal favourite is James Spader as Daniel Jackson who makes the character immediately likeable and endearing to the audience. Jackson is the audience’s way into the story. He’s the nerdy, brilliant scientist who’s just excited to be having an adventure and learning new things whilst suffering the annoyance of allergies (can you get hayfever on a desert alien planet? That would totally be me if you could). Jackson is arguably the most realistic and most relatable character in the film and Spader is utterly believable in the role. Kurt Russell portrays Jack O’Neil, the no-nonsense colonel who is a fierce fighter and completely loyal to his men yet is also suffering from a form of depression after his son’s death (which occurs prior to the beginning of the film). While Russell is excellent in the role, O’Neil is not a warm character and as a viewer I don’t root for him as I do other characters due to the fact that I don’t find him as likeable. That being said O’Neil probably has the biggest character growth and he ends up overcoming more than one type of demon by the film’s end. The film also has a wonderful supporting cast in the form of: Jaye Davidson as the seemingly omnipotent Ra; Alexis Cruz as determined warrior Skaara; Erick Avari as Abydos’ leader Kasuf; and Mili Avital as the quick-witted Sha’uri.

Roland Emmerich had intended Stargate to be the first in a trilogy but those second and third films were never made. Perhaps the closest we’ll ever get to finding out Emmerich’s vision for the project comes in the form of Bill McCay’s book series. (I’ve never read the series but if I ever stumble across it I’ll let you know how it goes). And while Emmerich may never have intended the various television spin-offs to be Stargate’s legacy, the creativity and storytelling the original film inspired is certainly an impressive one.

Whether the television shows brought you to the film or you’re just discovering Stargate for the first time, this film works as a stand-alone movie in its own right and I believe it to be a great addition to the science fiction genre.

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