Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
Roland Emmerich is a director who likes to blow things up. If you drank a shot for all the times man-made monuments have been destroyed in his films, you’d be pretty drunk. One of the biggest criticisms of his work is just that: he likes to blow things up. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can get a little boring after a while. One of his films, however, stands a little higher from that. Sure, there are explosions and things blowing up, but in Stargate (1994), the demolition doesn’t take place on Earth (the White House is safe from Emmerich for a change). Instead, we’re given a galaxy-spanning start to a long-standing franchise.
In Stargate we’re given two leads to follow: one is a discredited historian, Daniel Jackson (James Spader), and the other is a suicidal colonel, Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell). They’re forced to work together when Jackson successfully translates an ancient Stargate that allows them to instantly be transported to another galaxy. On this faraway desert planet, O’Neil and his strike force are tasked with determining if the habitants of this new world are a threat to Earth.
The film has some flaws. The dialogue is clunky, and the characters definitely fall into standard tropes, from Spader’s naïve linguist, to Russell’s no-nonsense soldier. Even French Stewart shows up as the complainer of the squad (a role done infinitely better by Bill Paxton in Aliens). It is, however, fun to see Spader play against type. Spader does the condescending know-it-all snarkster so well that it’s nice to see him play earnest for earnest. Don’t get me wrong, I love his Steff in Pretty in Pink and Alan Shore in The Practice and Boston Legal, but Jackson has a much softer side to him that Spader doesn’t get to play with as much. Russell is in gruff-soldier mode here and subdues his natural charisma. The plot gives him a backstory about recently losing his son, and lo and behold, on this new world he is given a substitute son to make him feel that life is worth living again.
So if you’re not staying for the wonderful character development or plot points, what makes this film stand out? The premise is an interesting one, and if the film had been a huge hit, it would have been set up for sequels. Instead, it was a modest enough success to be picked up by television executives and given four separate series (the live-action Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, Stargate Universe, and animated Stargate Infinity). Tying into Egyptian mythology is a unique approach that pays dividends, both in highlighting lesser known pantheons and also giving some incredibly gorgeous and stylistic scenery. From the ornateness of Ra’s palace to the pyramid shape of the spaceship and costume intricacies of Ra’s guards. There’s a lot of detail in Stargate that isn’t seen in most of Emmerich’s oeuvre.
One thing worth bringing up for discussion is Jaye Davidson as the evil Ra. Davidson has an aloof, otherworldly presence, and this shines through in his portrayal. Davidson is more famous for his transgender character in The Crying Game, and this was certainly uppermost in Emmerich’s thoughts for casting him. Your mileage may vary as to whether Davidson’s androgyny is a good thing in showing a different type of character on screen or a negative portrayal by casting a less represented (or in 1994, completely unrepresented) gender type in the big, bad role. I will say that I find it sad that Davidson only had two roles; he left filmmaking behind because he hated the fame focused on his life. His portrayal of Dil in The Crying Game is both beautiful and heartbreaking (and way more crucial to the story than the twist that people get hung up on). Stargate wasn’t going to win any awards, but I would have loved to see what more he could have done on-screen.
I would recommend watching Stargate. While it’s not a great film, it is a fun popcorn flick that will pass an enjoyable two hours. It takes itself a little more seriously than the TV series, and it’s interesting to think where films might have taken the franchise if it had done better at the box office. Come for the Russell and stay for the Spader. Enjoy!
This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.