Dust off your sarcophagi and bust out your sunscreen, Tor.com, because the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia is back, with: 1994’s Stargate! They do the sand dance, dontcha know!
(And if you immediately got that reference: congratulations, you’re old. Whee!)
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
ME: Let’s have a fight about aliens!
Well, what I actually said was “Let’s talk about the next MRGN movie, Stargate!”, but what ended up happening was that we had a fight about aliens. As you do.
Specifically, my sisters were both appalled that I did not immediately agree that aliens exist. They’re probably not going to be the only ones.
And look. I feel you. Coming from a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool science fiction nerd like yours truly, that assertion may be a bit startling. But my argument, like any good sci-fi nerd’s argument should be, is based in scientific principle. Meaning, I am certainly open to the possibility that there are aliens out there somewhere; I would even cop to the likelihood of their existence, given the statistical argument which Carl Sagan summed up as “if there weren’t, it seems like an awful waste of space.” Sure, no problem.
But, sez me, likelihood is not proof. It’s not even evidence, in fact—at least, there is no evidence I’m aware of that doesn’t come with a tin foil hat firmly glued to it. And unless and until any concrete evidence of aliens does show up, I feel like the question of their existence or not remains not much more than a mildly interesting intellectual exercise without a conclusion.
LIZ: But… you love stories about aliens and stuff.
ME: Well, sure. Fictional aliens are awesome. But why do I have to believe in real aliens before I’m allowed to enjoy fake ones?
This is a weird (to me, anyway) phenomenon that I’ve run into before. I had a friend back in California who was, it transpired, a fairly fervent believer in things like ghosts and poltergeists and psychic phenomena, and he was genuinely shocked to discover that I didn’t believe any of those things were real. His response was nearly identical to Liz’s: “But you love stories about psychics and ghosts!” And I was like… yeah, so?
But I digress! My point is, I am perfectly capable of enjoying the shit out of a good “aliens exist” yarn without needing to believe that it translates to aliens actually existing. And 1994’s Stargate, while not being perhaps cinema’s most iconic portrayal of aliens, is still one of our favorites.
There’s nothing I could point to that makes this movie great, but there are plenty of things I could point to which are more than good enough to make it unite into a very pleasing and satisfying (and rewatchable) whole. Which is a lot more than most movies can do, so, you know, don’t knock it.
The production design, for one, which took the plot’s clichéd-but-acting-like-it’s-not clichéd premise of “Ancient Egyptians = ALIENZZZ!!” and ran with it, to lovely effect. Liz in particular is very fond of the way the costumes and sets evoked the feel of Ancient Egypt while also infusing a technological/otherworldly feel into it.
The Western fascination with the mysteriousness of Ancient Egyptian culture, while dimmed over time (especially in light of increasing awareness of its racist/imperialist overtones), is still plenty strong enough to lure the audience in right off the bat, and the film does a great job of including just enough realism about the era and culture (or at least the research into it) to give a note of authenticity to the blatant fiction of everything else.
The detail that Dr. Jackson could read hieroglyphics, but couldn’t actually speak the language until he got Sha’uri to tell him what the vowels were, for instance. Which is an element that I loved at the time—and still do, really, even though I now know that’s a simplified at best explanation of the difficulties modern scholars have with translating the language.
It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is very nice to look at, if in a very “late 20th century Hollywood” way:
KATE: I had a house like that once.
I remember reading a remark from one of the actors that the desert sure as hell hadn’t looked that pretty when they were filming the movie, so yay for aggressive color correction, I guess.
The CGI effects in Stargate are definitely a tad dated, but they were used sparingly enough that their clunkiness is easily ignored, and some effects—like the gorgeous “sunlit water” effect of the Stargate itself—still hold up very well.
LIZ: I love the scene where they open the Stargate for the first time, but I could never understand why they didn’t just figure out the last chevron by trial and error. There can only be so many options on that thing, after all.
Yeah, well. As a side note, it may not have been until I saw this movie that I realized “chevron” was a word that meant something besides “a brand of gas station”. Love and kisses, my first-class American education. Ahem.
Anyway, the other thing that is not-great-but-definitely-very good about Stargate is the cast.
KATE: This is literally the only role I can remember James Spader in where he wasn’t a total asshole.
Me too. And yet his Dr. Jackson was a most excellent adorable nerd, which kind of makes me sad Spader didn’t more often get to break out of the “smarmy dickface” style of character he is, admittedly, very good at playing.
LIZ: Aim for the flattop!
Wow, that hair, y’all. Colonel O’Neil was something of a departure for Kurt Russell as well, if not so much as Jackson was for Spader. I could never quite decide if the tragic backstory for O’Neil was overwrought or not, but then it’s not like Russell ever does “subtle”, so from the perspective of “this character is being played by Kurt Russell”, it worked just fine, I suppose.
Jaye Davidson really only ever had two memorable roles in Hollywood: in Stargate as the evil sun god/alien Ra, and (by several orders of magnitude of memorability) as the transgender character Dil in 1992’s The Crying Game. The hullabaloo over the latter of which at the time is, I think, pretty embarrassing in retrospect—not for Davidson, but for everyone else. You guys, the collective OMG ANDROGYNY TRANSGENDER WOMAN-MAN-WHAAAAT losing-of-shit over that movie in the 90s was not to be believed.
Anyway, I remember reading at the time about how Davidson was reportedly incredibly difficult to work with on Stargate, how he was a total diva and prone to throwing tantrums and being completely unreasonable on set, etc. And hey, I wasn’t there, maybe he really was a nightmare. But looking back on the kind of prurient, half-mocking “fame” he attained for daring to be so far outside the acceptable Hollywood parameters for masculinity and gender conformity in the 1990s—or, hell, twenty years later than that—I have to wonder how much of his tantrum-throwing was actually perfectly reasonable.
Moving on! Then you have Assorted Military Speaking Roles, which by unspoken Hollywood rule included a guy with a Polish surname starting with a “K” sound (seriously, I’m not making this up, there’s always a Kowalski or some variation thereof), and weirdly, French Stewart, who was much more believable as an actual alien than as a military dude fighting them.
KATE: At least the squinting made sense in the desert, though.
And last and most definitely least, of course, was The Token Chick, Sha’uri, played by Israeli-American actress Mili Avital.
Needless to say, Stargate fails the Bechdel test with a resounding clunk, since as far as I know no female characters speak to each other on camera at all, much less about something other than a man. And Sha’uri, with dreary predictability, is confined to the standard female roles of love interest, damsel in distress, and general walking plot device. Sigh.
(Liz staunchly interjects that she thinks the love story between Sha’uri and Jackson is adorable, and she’s not wrong; they are very adorable. But, well.)
KATE: Bing! She’s done!
While we liked the conceit of alien technology finding repairing the human body laughably easy, we would like to ask why, when it healed Jackson, why it also didn’t fix his eyesight. As someone who’s worn corrective lenses since she was seven, I’M JUST SAYING.
Stargate was directed by Roland Emmerich, and represents a key stage in his evolution as a director, in that the plot only threatened to destroy the Earth, instead of actually doing it. I assume he was just gearing up for the real Earth-killin’ later on. There’s also his standard trope of What These People Need Are (American) (Military) White Dudes (To Save Them), which I’ve always found slightly puzzling considering that Emmerich is German, but okay, sure.
Also worth noting: Stargate did a lot better at the box office than most people thought it would, which led to it being spun off multiple times into various TV series which have attained a pretty solid cult following in the SFF community. I confess that I myself never got too much into the post-movie Stargate franchise other than watching a couple seasons of Stargate: Atlantis more or less at random, and my sisters have never watched any of them at all, so while I suspect a discussion of Stargate the movie is incomplete without addressing the (from what I understand) fairly complex universe that built on it later, it’s a discussion I am not qualified to undertake. But feel free to school me on it in the comments!
In any case, standard Hollywood problematicness and silliness aside, Stargate is a solidly entertaining SF flick that in general we thought held up very nicely. A deathless classic it is not, perhaps, but it has good humor and good action and an engaging premise, and we enjoyed rewatching it very much.
And so! We end with: THE SCALE.
Reality: ehhh, 7 or 8, sure
And that’s the show, kids! Tell me your thoughts! Later!