When it’s on: Monday, 28 May (11.45 pm)
The temptation is to be incredibly sniffy about the movies of Roland Emmerich. His films routinely take advantage of the latest effects technology and hire star names on big budgets to produce dumbed down entertainment, the sort of fare that makes no demand on its audience’s brains. The likes of 2012 and The Day after Tomorrow present scientific theses so full of holes that Dara O’Briain can make a successful comic routine from them – ‘the neutrinos have mutated!’ and so on.
And yet Emmerich has never claimed to turn out work that can complement one’s academic research. His films are meant to be entertaining, end of, and they’re often exactly that. He also has a canny knack for basing his projects on contemporary talking points. Stargate was released as the possible link between the pyramids of Giza and Orion’s Belt was becoming a real issue for debate within Egyptology circles. Robots sent into hitherto unexplored crannies of the great pyramids seemed to add weight to the theory they’d been built as temples astronomically aligned with the constellation. Whether there’s any real truth behind it is a question for other people and around a third of the History Channel’s content, but it does beg the question – why? Were the ancient Egyptians really so sophisticated, or had someone – or something – had a hand in developing their structures?
Stargate riffs neatly on this very point. Its story is that aliens visited us some ten thousand years ago in their pyramid-shaped vessels. The aliens’ culture, technology and artwork inspired that of ancient Egypt. The armour they wore transformed them in the minds of those early humans into the Gods of the civilisation, led by Ra, the aliens’ ruler. Initially enslaved by the aliens into mining their minerals, our ancestors ultimately rose against them, leading to the development of the eponymous stargate, a method of trafficking people from our world to one on the other side of the universe in order to supply workers. The stargate on earth was buried and lost long ago, until it was discovered in 1928. Enter Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a present day clumsy yet likeable academic whose work on ancient Egyptian languages makes him the perfect candidate to decipher and unlock the stargate…
Emmerich has this weird tendency to employ some of the best actors around, only to give them little to do. James Spader, amongst the most interesting screen thesps of his generation, is called on to bring none of his hard edge to Stargate, merely to be boffinish and loveable. I imagine he was happy to take the money and run, though he’s capable of so much more. Also on hand is Kurt Russell, playing the military leader who leads a squad of marines through the stargate with Spader. A reliable old hand at this sort of thing, Russell brings the right combination of tough guy and ‘soft centre’ to the table, especially in his dealings with the native youth that comes to worship him. Jaye Davidson plays Ra, and he’s a really fascinating choice. Bringing an androgyny to the role and following his career-making turn in The Crying Game, Davidson was already fed up with the negative attention he’d received and demanded a $1 million payday for Stargate, thinking he’d price himself out of it. Instead, Canal+ paid up and Davidson put in a memorable performance, truly capable of looking ‘alien’ with very little make-up involved.
Stargate is, at heart, unpretentious fun. The special effects haven’t dated too badly for a film that’s nearly twenty years old, partly because it relies on them sparingly, and there are memorable supporting turns from Erick Avari as a sympathetic high priest, and Djimon Hounsou playing one of Ra’s guards, Horus. The film spawned a successful, long-running TV series, Stargate SG-1, which expanded the concept of the stargates and the possibilities of their destinations. Not such a bad legacy for a throwaway, mid-nineties sci-fi flick.