I would think if you’re a reader of this site, you’ll have seen “Stargate”. It’s one of the most famous sci-fi films of recent decades, it’s inspired three different TV series and has, probably, given Ancient Alien “theorists” ideas for articles that start “I know this is in the fiction section, but what if it was based on fact?” I’d never seen it until last night, so if you’re like me, or if your memory is just really bad and you want to know if you ought to watch it again, read on.
Although he’s also German, and also makes often rubbish sci-fi movies, Roland Emmerich has little else in common with Uwe Boll. Emmerich has proved, since “Universal Soldier” in 1992, that he’s the guy to go to if you want your high-concept genre movie to make big $$$; Boll has proved that any good movies he makes are probably an accident, and he should fire his casting person. While Boll is perfect for the ISCFC, Emmerich’s stuff is a bit too big-budget for us to normally bother with, but…well, I wanted to write about it.
In 1928, a group of American archaeologists uncover a Stargate, and although it takes them nearly 70 years, they figure out how to work it. Well, one guy figures it out, and that’s James Spader, with a sheepish look and magnificent mane of floppy 90s hair. He’s Dr Daniel Jackson (the same character who shows up in the TV series – don’t worry, that’s the only bit of movie-to-show trivia I have) and he plays super-smart chaps with a sense of humour remarkably well. Anyway, they get the Stargate up and running (an amazing effect, featured in all the trailers with good reason) and Jackson, Kurt Russell as the badass Army guy and his group of almost-as-badass soldiers, all go through it and find themselves somewhere that looks a lot like ancient Egypt.
So, the Egyptian sun-god Ra is just an alien who possessed the body of an Egyptian fellow, and using a weird glowing sarcophagus, keeps himself alive for the next several millennia. As the people of Earth rebelled against him (why we’re not all praying to Ra right now, presumably), the human slaves he has on this mysterious sandy planet are forbidden to read or write, so they can never progress and never rebel against his rule. So you’ve got a friendly slave culture (featuring curious kids, super-hot women and old priests); Ra and his similarly god-themed guards; and the Stargate team. Simple and effective.
First things first, the film looks amazing. The sand and the perfect blue sky pop against each other beautifully, and the culture of the planet has clearly had some thought put into it- it’s believably what ancient Egyptian culture, left to rot for a few thousand years, would look like. The effects are great too, but that’s to be expected coming from a consummate big-budget guy like Emmerich.
Talking of him, his other great gift is casting. I’m not sure how far I want to take this Boll / Emmerich comparison, but Boll’s casting feels like darts thrown at a board with the name of every actor on it; Emmerich’s just seems “right”. “Independence Day” is perhaps the best example of a film full of perfect casting choices (Randy Quaid! Brent Spiner! Harvey Fierstein!) but he nails it here too. Kurt Russell and James Spader look like they were born to play their roles, but French Stewart (in his first movie), playing wildly against future type as a hardass Italian-American soldier, is great, and the casting of the space-Egyptians is superb too.
Sadly one particular space-Egyptian didn’t feel the same way – Ra, the god-villain, is played by Jaye Davidson (“The Crying Game”), and the experience was evidently so unpleasant that he retired from acting immediately afterwards. James Spader also had a rather funny quote about why he took on this project, despite finding the script laughable: “Acting, for me, is a passion, but it’s also a job, and I’ve always approached it as such. I have a certain manual-labourist view of acting. There’s no shame in taking a film because you need some fucking money.”
It’s a slick, big-budget adventure, and provided you have some love for those, you’ll certainly have a good time with this one. It had perhaps a more chequered route to the screen than most movies of its ilk – sued for ripping off a high school teacher’s screenplay (they didn’t, probably); terrible test screenings (solved by subtitling Ra’s speeches to give the plot more shape); and, the first movie to ever have an official website. Can you imagine? The days before websites? Eurgh, we might as well have been using stone tools.
Rating: thumbs up