Friday, January 18, 2013

Film Friday: Stargate (1994)

Every time I see Stargate, I wonder why I don’t like this film more than I do. I love the idea. The actors are perfectly cast too. I even love the television series that followed. Yet, after a good start, the film very quickly leaves me cold. Ultimately, I think the problem is this just isn’t a smart film.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Stargate begins with the introduction of Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spade). He’s an Egyptologist and linguistics professor with a strange theory about the Egyptians not building the Great Pyramids. He doesn’t know who did build them, but he’s sure it wasn’t the Egyptians. Jackson is asked by the Air Force to join a secret project. The Air Force has in its possession a device, found in Egypt, which they are trying to understand. Jackson solves the riddle the Air Force team couldn’t and they learn the device is a stargate, which lets you transport almost instantly to the location of any other gate in the galaxy.
A reconnaissance team is sent through the gate, led by Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell). They end up inside a pyramid on a planet that looks a lot like Ancient Egypt. To return, they need to find a cartouche containing symbols that tell them how to operate the gate from that side. As they search, they meet a group of humans who are slaves to Ra, the Egyptian god. Ra, it turns out, is an alien creature who occupies human bodies to live forever. The reconnaissance team has brought a nuclear bomb with them with instructions to blow up the gate if they find life. Ra takes the bomb and plans to blow up the Earth with it, but the team saves the day.
The Problem
Stargate is one of those films that starts strong and leaves you impressed with the overall idea of the stargate. But actually watching the film turns out to be a pretty darn dull experience. This is because the film just isn’t a very smart film.
Consider the plot. The plot starts strong with the introduction of a mystery. You have an unknown device that must be decrypted. You have the mystery of who built the pyramids. You have a secret military project hidden in a missile silo. This is all very exciting and offers much potential. Unfortunately, it only lasts about five minutes. Jackson solves the mystery and they open the stargate. Everything you have seen up to this point is now finished and a new movie begins, a movie based on what is on the other side of the gate. Still, that sounds like it has a lot of potential, right? Sure, except at this point, the film runs out of ideas. On the other side of the gate, the reconnaissance team finds a desert and a hostile alien, and the rest of the film is little more than an action film where a small band of soldiers must defeat the god-like Ra. There is no mystery, no intrigue and no more ideas to make you think.

Moreover, at this point, all the writing becomes exposition. . . blatant exposition. For example, rather than showing the audience why Earth can’t turn on the gate from their end to let the recon team return, the writers have a soldier ask the question “Why can’t Earth just turn it on” and another soldier responds, “Haven’t you heard? It doesn’t work that way.” Exposition stinks. It’s poor writing. It saps a film of the scenes that make the film memorable.
In this case, it would have added a lot to the film to have Earth turn on the gate and have a team member try to walk though, only to have the guy disintegrate. That would have given the audience a visceral, memorable moment. Instead, it becomes a forgettable line of dialog. Making this failure even worse, it’s not like the film was packed with so much that there wasn’t more time for another impactful scene. To the contrary, about 90% of the film was quite dull, with the recon team befriending the natives, falling for the native girl, or just walking around in the sand.

Unfortunately, the entire film after they open the stargate is like this. Who are these humans on this new planet? Their leader tells us. Who is Ra? Ra tells us. How do we know Ra is an alien? He tells us. He has a device that lets him resurrect the dead. How do we know that? We’re told. Nothing in the second half of the film is shown to the audience, it’s all just told to us through exposition.
Now compare that to the first part of the film. How do we know Jackson’s theories aren’t accepted by the scientific community? He’s giving a lecture and people start walking out. They mock him. How do we know he’s a genius? He arrives at the project and within seconds fixes a mistranslation the team has been working with for months. A few minutes later, he solves the mystery of the stargate and he finds the missing symbol the rest of them didn’t see. In truth, these are fake achievements and the more you think about them, the dumber they become – for example, the translation isn’t really relevant since they have the gate and it’s not like anyone with a brain would need “gateway to Heaven” to be re-translated into “stargate” to get the meaning – but the point is that you are shown actions which show you what you need to know, you aren’t just told.

Here’s another example. Col. O’Neil is messed up because his son accidentally shot himself with O’Neil’s gun. How do we know this? When O’Neil is introduced to us, we see him sitting on his bed holding his gun, looking at a picture of his son, as his wife tells the MPs that he won’t talk to anyone. Yes, the MPs tell the audience what happened to O’Neil’s son, but not until after we figured it out. Again, the difference is huge. By seeing this, we understand viscerally what is going on in O’Neil’s mind. If we were only told, then it wouldn’t really sink in.

So why don’t we get to see Ra steal his latest body? Why don’t we get a real mystery of who the people on this new planet are? Because the filmmakers either weren’t very bright or they got lazy. Fixing this issue alone would have made this movie an order of magnitude better by giving us three or four more truly memorable scenes. Right now, there aren’t any after the opening of the gate.
Another problem with this film, is that everything in it is cliché. That’s more evidence of lazy writing. For example, why would Gen. West give the reconnaissance team a nuclear bomb? Well, because he’s a soldier and the Hollywood trope has it that soldiers want to blow up what they don’t understand. But this nonsense. No one would blow up a find like the stargate. Moreover, why even send the reconnaissance team? Why not just send the bomb? The whole concept is clichéd and stupid. The film is packed with moments like this: the stupid science team awaiting the genius, the soldier who will throw aside his orders to save a kid, the native girl who falls for the hero, the villain with no purpose other than being villainous.

Stargate could have been a top five science film in my opinion if the writers had given any thought to turning all the exposition into scenes to let the audience discover what is going on. Stretch out the mystery of who built the Great Pyramids. Introduce us to the alien Ra by showing him switch bodies and seeing the horror of both humans as it leaves the old body and takes over the new. And find non-cliché motives for Gen. West, Jack O’Neil, and Ra. But the writer’s didn’t do this, and what could have been a great film ended up a pretty darn dull film to watch.



K said...

Col. O’Neil is messed up because his son accidentally shot himself with O’Neil’s gun.

Strangely enough, children killed in gun accidents just happened to be the media anti-gun message de joure when the movie was released.

Anthony said...

I think this is going to be an uneventful discussion. Stargate is just a profoundly mediocre movie which does nothing well (it was devoid of interesting performances, great scenes and cool special effects). I think Stargate and Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire were separated at birth.

Literally the only thing I can remember about Stargate is that the villian was the 'cover girl' of The Crying Game.

tryanmax said...

I believe you mean James Spader, not David Spade.

tryanmax said...

Anthony, I never saw The Crying Game but that sure helps to explain why Ra has a serious case of "chick-or-dude?" syndrome.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I remember renting this film when it was first released on video and I was bored out of my mind. I finally watched it for the first time in its entirety a few years ago... I didn't think it was that bad, but nothing I need to see ever again.

I barely remember anything from it, except for French Stewart (who would soon appear on 3rd Rock from the Sun) and the soaring score by David Arnold.

Of course, when it comes to Roland Emmerich's filmography, 2012 makes this movie look like Citizen Kane by comparison. And he somewhat redeemed himself after this movie with Independence Day.

AndrewPrice said...

K, Very true. At the time it came out, I don't think most people noticed though because the film wasn't very blatant about having political messages. But in hindsight, now that we've seen Emmerich's films like The Day After Tomorrow, it's clear just how far left the guy is and that this message was definitely intentional.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, That's actually what bothers me about the film is that the film had huge potential. It even shows it knows how to do it right, the way it starts. But then it just falls apart and becomes intensely dull.

I'm really surprised anyone made a series out of this film -- and did it well.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Thanks, fixed! :)

Yeah, I think that was the only reason Davidson was ever cast, because he's certainly not a good actor. I have no idea why those chose him as Ra here except that they wanted to suggest something strange sexually. Either way, he's not a great villain and it's not just the writing, it's also the lack of any sense that he's intimidating. He's kind of lazy as villains go.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This one has some staying power and I think the reason really is the series. I think people assume that if a film has a couple series spun off from it, then it must have been a good film. This one wasn't. And what bothers me, as I say, is that this one could have been great. It had a lot of potential, but they basically squandered it all and it became a handful of guys walking around the desert until the big shootout.

I think that's a pretty strong lesson for anyone who ever wants to write a story as to why you always follow the rule of "show, don't tell."

rlaWTX said...

This is one of those movies where the TV show that came afterward outshines it so much as to make the original movie irrelevant except as the spark for the TV show. (like Buffy)

I vaguely remember seeing the movie before the show and thinking it was 'ok'. After I had watched the show for a while, the movie's casting is wrong, the story is boring, and it just pales in comparison. Richard Dean Anderson IS Jack ONeill and Micheal Shanks IS Daniel Jackson.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, Buffy is a good comparison, the TV show really outshined the film by a mile.

I agree about the casting. The film now feels like it's been miscast because these actors aren't these characters! LOL!

BIG MO said...

Andrew, your review is spot-on.

I wanted to like this movie more than I did, both because of the fun TV spin-offs and that it was supposed to be superior to 1994's other big-budget sci-fi flick, Star Trek Generations. That film has aged well, regardless of its many flaws. But were it not for the TV series & related TV movies, Stargate would remain a curious lost opportunity from the '90s.

Anonymous said...


Interestingly enough, both Stargate and Star Trek Generations claim to have had the first movie promotional website, but I can't prove which one was really first.

And in the newspaper ads, both studios used critics' quotes against the other one: "Don't see Stargate, see Star Trek!" and vice versa. :-)

T-Rav said...

I watched Stargate a couple months ago--okay, actually I watched like the first 40 minutes of it. Yeah. I couldn't get into it. I was vaguely aware of the series, not that I'd ever watched it; but honestly, the whole concept struck me as wacky. Whaaaa????

Also, I can't stand James Spader, so that turned me off too.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Mo! What amazes me here is that the flaw is the result of them violating the most fundamental rule of writing. Why no one noticed is beyond me? It's clear they were stretching to find things for the characters to do in the sand. Didn't somebody say, "gee, why don't we unpack some of that exposition?"

It's really amazing that they didn't.

And you're right, the only reason this film still draws an audience is because of the series.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I remember the web was still new then and few companies had websites. Could you imagine not having a website today?

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I think the concept is great. It's actually not that original -- lots of people were doing wormholes and gates, but the thing is that those are just vehicles for the story, they don't justify the entire story itself. This film seemed to think that it was enough to show people the concept and then they would be wow'd enough that they wouldn't need more.

Anonymous said...

I still love this film, and find it just fun to watch; mostly because of James Spader's lovable dork Dr. Daniel Jackson. Unlike some of the other folks here I could never get into the TV series because for me the movie came first, and the TV series just didn't compare. I gave up about three episodes In and never revisited it.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, The TV show takes some time to get into and it took about a season before they really found their wings -- the first season is atrocious. I recommend giving it another try. It really is good television.

Jackson is easily the best thing in the film in my opinion. He's very likeable and his moments are the best.

As I say above, I don't hate the film at all, I just think it could have been a lot better.

rlaWTX said...

I didn't start watching the TV show until a couple of seasons in, maybe that helped me get into it...

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, Same here. I didn't see the first season until I'd seen a couple of the later seasons. And boy is it awful! I'm glad I started in the middle because I think that made it a lot easier to like the characters.

Koshcat said...

I never watched the series but I found the film entertaining. I agree with you that with a few relatively minor changes, it could have been spectacular.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I think so. And I find that frustrating because I see so much potential here and it would have been so simple to achieve... but they didn't for whatever reason.

Anonymous said...

I liked the movie even though it was flawed and it could have been a lot better.

I never really even gave the show a try as I thought it would be worse than the movie.


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, The show takes a little to get into, but once you get into it, it's really quite strong -- very likeable characters, great sense of humor, good action, interesting stories. It's production values aren't super high, but it makes up for it with good writing.

I recommend jumping in during the second or third season to get used to the characters and then going back to the first season. The first season really struggled with a lot of garbage.

Commander Max said...

Andrew, I sure can't argue with any of your points. Even the cut scenes couldn't help.

I remember it being enjoyable on the surface, but that's as far as it got.
But the movie did have some value, the production design was beautiful, so was the cinematography. But then how many movies suffer from poor writing and poor editing.

But then these are the same guys that made Godzilla(even the Japanese hated it), and Independence Day. I think the best comparison of the day would be Jurassic Park. It was truly awful but it had a quality in common with Stargate. Great imagery with a poor story, but that is common in movies. It's like the guys making the movie are so impressed with the production design. They forget all about the story. Maybe they can't chew gum and walk at the same time.

I think it's something else. I don't think they care. Or worse they think they know what we want.

That's one of the sad things about movies. It isn't like Hollywood has any real competition. Most modern sci-fi films leave a lot to be desired. Hollywood is a very small place, with very little real world experience.
I could go on and on about this, that subject could be a blog in itself.

Anonymous said...

Max -

The reason why movies turn out the way they do are many and varied. At least when Stargate was made, Hollywood wasn't selling out to the foreign market just yet, which is why so many movies today seem dumbed-down and super-simplified. (Action is easier to translate than clever dialogue.)

And for every film that's made, there are dozens that aren't, along with a group of executives who are deathly afraid of losing their jobs.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I think there's a lot to that and I don't know understand why. I see that over and over where a director focuses on one aspect -- production values, effects, action choreography, story -- and ignores all the others.

You would think that each department would want to do their best, but apparently that's not true.

I agree that Stargate had beautiful visuals and beautiful filmography. The effects are well done, the sets are excellent and the whole film is beautiful to look at. But after that, it's really rather shallow in every other aspect. It makes me wonder if Emmerich didn't come up from the whole design aspect of filmmaking and that's his passion.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Fear and the corporate decision making model are the problem today. They would rather produce a generic film that could sell to a wide audience and be forgotten than make a film that has a chance to catch on with a loyal audience.

Commander Max said...

I forgot to mention the soundtrack, I think Stargate's theme gets a little overused in previews for other films.

In one of Stargate's making of's(on tv, at the time it came out). I saw something that really intrigued me. They said they didn't have enough time to get the sarcophagus finished. So they brought in a piece of equipment to complete it.
It was a computer controlled(CNC)router, my life wasn't the same since.

Marketing rules the roost, which shackles the filmmakers. But there is something else in the mix. That is for the most part conservatives are left out of the marketing model, or worse they think thy are catering to us. But really don't have a clue, so they play to their bias.

El Gordo said...

At his best Emmerich made movies that were dumb but fun (ID4) but ever since Godzilla they became just annoyingly dumb. And they´re dumb in a condescending "the rubes don´t care" sort of way. I WANT to like his sci fi stuff. In terms of imagery, it´s what I read and dreamed about as a teenager. As it is, I honestly prefer the work of Michael Bay.

Emmerich is apparently slated to direct "Foundation" based on the Asimov novels. Not a good match.

Anonymous said...

El Gordo -

I think he was a better filmmaker when he was paired up with co-writer/producer Dean Devlin. Of course, they made Godzilla but it's Citizen Kane compared to Emmerich's subsequent films like 2012.

AndrewPrice said...

Max, I'm not familiar with that router?

I agree about the marketing, that's what's driving films today -- selling and making. And you're absolutely right that they are leftists selling a leftist view to their stereotypes of conservatives.

AndrewPrice said...

El Gordo, I can't imagine Emmerich directing The Foundation. That's going to be awful.

I agree that Emmerich's imagery is good. It is what you hope to see in science fiction. But his films really are dumb... very dumb. And now we need add "politically offensive," as he's gone that route big time.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I agree about the Devlin connection, but yeah, Godzilla is horrible by any measure. It's not even a good "bad movie."

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