Thursday, June 9, 2016

Give my regards to King Tut, asshole


For preserving space opera between Return of the Jedi and The Fifth Element, Stargate absolutely deserves its cult.

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
With James Spader (Dr. Daniel Jackson), Kurt Russell (Col. Jack O'Neill), Viveca Lindfors (Catherine Langford), John Diels (Lt. Kawalsky), French Stewart, for some reason (Lt. Ferretti), Mili Avital (Sha'uri), Alexis Cruz (Skaara), Erick Avari (Kasuf), Djimon Hounsou (Horus), Carlos Lauchu (Anubis), and Jaye Davidson (Ra)

Could I have chosen a more perfect time to rewatch Stargate?  Not two weeks in the past, we have Hollywood's newest Egyptsploitation flick, X-Men: Apocalypse, whose frankly lame exotic orientalist supervillain highlights everything that's really great about Stargate's awesome exotic orientalist supervillain.  Just yesterday, we reviewed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as part of our ongoing Steven Spielberg retrospective; in fact, I had myself an Ancient Astronauts Double Feature, although clearly Stargate has the vastly more interesting take on that preposterous hypothesis.  Finally, in two weeks, Stargate's writer-director Roland Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin shall reteam for the first time in forever, with Independence Day Resurgence; and while I'm quite sure we'll get around to the original ID4 soon enough, why shouldn't we begin instead with the better of the duo's two space operas?

So: Stargate opens in 1928, spending just enough time there to give you a glimpse of a giant metal circle, discovered in Egypt, and to introduce one of its many highly functional characters, in this case Catherine Langford.  We catch up with Langford, now an old woman, in 1994, when she arrives at a lecture offered by Dr. Daniel Jackson, who was apparently pretty cagey when putting together the advertising material for his symposium, since his dumb, vaguely racist theories about who couldn't have built the pyramids (the Egyptians) clear the room within two minutes of being uttered.  Langford offers the destitute Egyptologist a job, and he reluctantly accepts, packing up and heading to a secret facility in the Rocky Mountains where he's confronted with ancient symbols, a pair of nincompoop translators that he intellectually bests almost the instant he meets them, and, finally, the big metal ring we saw earlier, which he has correctly identified from the inscriptions as "the stargate."

Now that Jackson's solved the riddle, the project's administrators in the U.S. Air Force turn the stargate on.  The unknown territory on the other side demands to be explored, and so a reconnaissance team is organized, led by one Colonel Jack O'Neill (whom we meet in the midst of contemplating suicide over the loss of his young son).  Once Dr. Jackson has suitably persauded the USAF brass that he can translate the new inscriptions on the other side, and thus bring everybody back home safely, the team makes their way through the gate, arriving upon a strange and desolate world.  Of course, since we need this story to last longer than thirty minutes, Jackson's blind optimism was grossly premature.  He can't translate the second set of inscriptions, at least not without a lot more information than he actually has.

Luckily, they soon make contact with the curiously-humanlike civilization they've found on this far-flung planet, and Jackson sets to work on getting the symbols right—but in the meantime, their activity has attracted the attention of the stargate's creator.  That's when we discover (if we hadn't already figured it out) that these folks are humans, brought here millennia ago as slaves by the alien body snatcher who presented itself to them as nothing less than the sun god Ra, and who presently maintains his control over them with a cadre of soldiers, whose ray guns and fearsome masks apparently inspired everything Emmerich and Devlin ever learned about Egyptian mythology.  These humans have been tasked, going on 5000 years, with digging up the unobtainium that gives Ra immortality, and Ra's rule has remained unquestioned.  But the intrusion of advanced humans through the stargate presents an intolerable affront to the old god's divinity, and Ra's fears are confirmed when he finds what O'Neill brought with him—namely, the atomic bomb he was going to use to blow the second stargate to pieces.  Packing O'Neill's A-bomb with his own nth metal, Ra intends on sending the device back through, obliterating civilization on Earth.  But while Ra schemes, Jackson has embroiled himself in the local neo-Egyptian life—that pretty young thing the village elders gave him as a bride is but one example—and with a new band of heroes to look up to, these long-oppressed slaves are at last ready to rise in revolt against their false gods.

Stargate, of course, is as replete with cliche as any movie you could name.  For one thing, I lied at the beginning of my synopsis: the film actually begins with an opening credits sequence that lovingly pans over a piece of Egyptian statuary, while David Arnold's score screams at you, "I love John Williams!  I love John Williams!  This is kind of like Indiana Jones!"  Consider further our two central heroes, who might as well be named Col. Military and Dr. Science; or the benighted natives moved to revolution by the salutary influence of some mighty white colonialist-types; or the quotations Emmerich steals from Close Encounters as Jackson prepares to enter the stargate, and the further quotations from 2001: A Space Odyssey, as Jackson makes his passage through it; or the surfeit of quasi-Leanian desert vistas; or the Slocombian firelit caverns; or all the generalized Magic Hour photography throughout; or the Return of the Jedi cross-cutting of the finale, switching between one hero in the base, the other hero in the alien battle station, and the other other heroes in the desert outside; or that wondrously fey villain; or, finally, the fact that Kurt Russell is just playing Kurt Russell—that is, Snake Plissken with the nihilistic edges sanded off—apparently in complete disregard of his character's actual backstory, which manages to inform some of his characters' actions but is never allowed to get in the way of a really awesome Kurt Russell quip.  (Indeed, Stargate only becomes an all-time classic, rather than merely a very good movie, a full 105 minutes into its runtime.  It does so with the utterance of a single perfect line, which can compete with anything in the whole Russell Museum of Great Bad-Ass Quips.)

And that, as you know, is one glorious structure.

The genius of Stargate, and I don't hesitate to call it genius, is that all its cliches are deployed so well, each of them like precisely-portioned ingredients in a recipe.  The bespectacled, long-haired James Spader—who looks so much like John Lennon it's surprising no one ever built a Beatles biopic around him—is ideal as the personification of Sensitive, Dorky Science.  Russell, obviously, is even more ideal, as his avatar of American Military Power.  (Devlin and Emmerich would re-use this classic dyad soon enough, and without Spader and Russell, we might not have the bickering of Goldblum and Smith.)  Meanwhile, the whiff of racism, which is bound to inhere to any Indiana Jonesish adventure, is buried almost completely beneath the science fantasy trappings; and anyway, Stargate wins points for casting actual brown people, including a young Djimon Hounsou, as well as the 1990s' favorite old bald brown person, Erick Avari.  (Stargate wins even more points by posing the language barrier as a real problem; now, that problem gets solved in about 24 hours, but you could hardly ask for more from a movie like this.)  The only beat that doesn't completely work involves the brief period where O'Neill's airmen are still furious at Jackson for stranding them here with his obligatory hubris.  It's not like it isn't well-motivated—honestly, Jackson is a total asshole, and somehow isn't remotely punished for it—but it all feels a little stale in the telling.  It certainly can't help that the angriest airman is played by French Stewart, whom we find affecting his best tough guy voice, which is (arguably) even more grating than his regular voice.

Still, it's kind of hard to blame Emmerich and Devlin, since Third Rock wouldn't hit the airwaves for another two years—though even without it, they still probably should have seen what an obvious miscasting it was.  Probably the worst of it, in fact, is how clearly it prefigures Emmerich and Devlin's pathological commitment to weird, atonal comic relief, often represented by B-celebrities doing stupid voices.  Yet it underscores just how seriously they're taking everything else here.  And this must be Stargate's most appealing quality: its refusal to wink, no matter how silly it gets, not unlike a 50s B-picture.  There's obviously a lot of Star Wars here along with the Indiana Jones—and in any conversation about those films' innumerable rip-offs, Stargate is bound to loom large.

If an unaccountable French Stewart necessarily represents the nadir of Stargate's human element, then Jaye Davidson represents its apex.  It was nothing less than a bona fide casting coup—and, even with Spader and Russell, there's absolutely no question who's giving the best performance here.  The androgynous actor, probably still most famous for playing a certain character in The Crying Game (whom I shall not name, in case you've somehow never seen The Crying Game), positively vamps through every scene as the almighty Ra.  Davidson shoots ominous looks to every last corner of the massive 'Scope frame; his eyes flash with venom and infinite hatred, even when the special effects team aren't punching up the effect with a little old-school CGI; and Davidson always looks just so spectacularly bored with all his pitiful mortal enemies, that you can't help but love hating the bastard.  Davidson offers us the kind of villain whose downfall just couldn't be satisfying if it didn't come with a legendary quip and a face-full of gamma radiation.  (And is Davidson magnificently assisted by Joseph Porro's costume design?  Oh, he certainly is, and Porro's rendition of ancient Egyptian mythological figures—it's hard to say where Porro's costume design ends and Holger Gross' production design begins—is only not the first thing you think of when someone says "movies about Egypt" because Boris Karloff once existed.)

Stargate is, if that aside didn't make it crystal clear, a very good-looking movie: the visual lifts from classic cinema, effected by B-list cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (it's almost indubitably his best work), mean that Stargate is chock full of iconic (if overly familiar) images.  Sometimes they are completed with some excellent matte paintings; sometimes it's nothing but guys walking on a sand dune; sometimes it's the surprisingly ritzy sets that make it all worthwhile.  (And it's always got this kind of great 80s Fantasy vibe to it, with a lot less CGI than you might remember, and almost all of the heavy lifting outside of the stargate itself done with practical effects and photographic tricks.)

Emmerich is interested in getting these images into his movie, but he's not interested in lingering too much over them—especially once the "sense of wonder" phase of the film is over—and that is almost certainly for the best, considering that after Stargate, Emmerich would only manage to make one more feature in his whole directorial career that clocked in at under two hours.

But Stargate was made in that brief, magical moment where Emmerich's (undeniable) talent had fully flowered, and right before all that talent went to his head; that is to say, before his films became bloated with every last stupid idea that flashed between his ears.  (Even ID4, which alone competes with Stargate for the title of "Emmerich's best," has some pretty serious problems in this regard.)  Stargate, by contrast, is as lean and mean as it could possibly be, without the film actually being worse for all its efficiency.  Happily, nothing is ever really sacrificed in Stargate's construction: the humor, the many grace notes, and the performances all fit naturally into an almost-frictionless machine.  At last, the one really novel thing about it, its premise, is explored with the kind of economy and judgment that honestly ought to make almost every contemporary filmmaker ashamed of themselves.  (I swear, this film's post-climactic epilogue might not actually be even 90 seconds long.  Compare that to any movie made today, and weep.)

Of course, Stargate's lightly-sketched cosmology would soon go on to inspire not just one but three whole long-running television shows.  You might be surprised to learn I've never seen a single minute of any of them; but, you know, if they had starred James Spader and Kurt Russell and Jaye Davidson, well, then I'd probably be able to recite every damn line.

Score:  8/10

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