You read the title correctly, dear Reader, this is, indeed, a review of a movie that came out 22 years ago. (And tomorrow I plan to post a review of a movie from 25 years ago!) This blog of late is operating in a personal archeology vein (or would vain be the better word in this case?) as well as a sociopolitical one. Remembrances and Rants R me!
The two reviews this weekend are very Yang-Yin in nature: I really hated, Stargate and really loved Grand Canyon (in fact, it’s one of my all-time Fave Five movies). Yet the former film spawned a multi-film and TV series franchise, so there ya go.
If anything, the amusing thing is how much I hated the film. It passed some threshold that put it forever on my blacklist…
The depth of reaction led to a review written more as a kind of personal journal venting. In the 1990s, that meant maybe put it on the personal website where only friends (and the rare passing stranger) ever saw it.
The buddy I went with also hated it, and it was our dissection of the film after that led to the review. So less reasoned review and more bar beers shade fest. As I read it now, it sounds a bit embarrassing and off-the-chain, but hey, I guess that’s kinda who I am sometimes.
In any event, for whatever it’s worth, to whom it may concern, and especially for my buddy, Mike, who got such a kick out of it, with all its warts, here is my “review’ of…
I thought this film was Bad Science, Bad Science Fiction and a Bad film. Warning: Total spoiler awaits… If you don’t want the plot revealed, or don’t want to read about how bad, I thought this was, this would the time to move on to the next website…
Still here? Okay, here we go…
Let me say first that this film draws from, but doesn’t improve or add anything very original, from 2001, Aliens, Star Wars, Lethal Weapon and a host of others. The SPFX are not bad, although there is far too much use of that visible mini-lightning, energy-crackling effect.
On the other hand, the characters are made of cardboard [Ed. literally in the crowd scenes!], the story is utterly void of thought and strung through and through with disconnected plot elements. Apparently no one involved with this film understands what SF is about and figures the effects will carry the film.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!!! [Ed: actually, considering its success, not really so wrong.] Let me save you some money; here’s the tale:
Film starts in 1923 when archeologists find some giant stone tablets (in the form of a huge disk) and an equally large ring. This was the only part of the film that wasn’t horrible (except that I had a hard time believing a little girl could just grab a recovered artifact off a table and keep it).
Flash forward to “Present Time”. We meet James Spader delivering a lecture about how the Egyptians couldn’t possibly have built the pyramids. At one point, his audience walks out en masse. We’re supposed to gather that this guy is smart, but unconventional. And this is about the extent of the character development for Spader (except that his allergies act up when he travels).
The scene is what I call a “spielbergism”: something done for effect that has little relation to reality. And could have been done better by someone with a little more respect for the intelligence of the audience. [Ed: although those who disdain the intelligence of the audience seem to have a point.]
During his lecture, an old woman walks in (obviously the young girl from the 1928 scene). She walks out. As Spader leaves, he’s accosted by two generic military types who escort him to a limo where the old lady awaits. She convinces him to join their project by pointing out that he’s just been evicted from his place and “everything you own is in those two suitcases.”
Cliché, cliché, cliché.
Speaking of clichés, we also meet Kurt Russell doing the Lethal Weapon scene with the suicide gun (“Oh, poor pitiful me, my son is dead.”). Two generic miltypes show up to tell him he’s been reactivated.
Spader shows up at the project site in “Colorado” (actually one of the most overused locations extant: the tunnel by the Griffith Park Observatory). Immediately upon walking in, he’s able to correct the translation from hieroglyphics work of people who’ve been working on the stuff for two years.
Thank God Spader showed up, eh?
And here’s where the film starts to turn to shit. If the tablets (and the object which we meet later) were found in 1928, why has the team only been working for the last two years? Spader immediately, upon first glance, re-translates a hieroglyphic phrase as “stargate” when the team had it as something totally different.
Russell has been brought in to take control of the team, and he lays down the law about security. (They placed an emotional burnout in charge of the project… now that’s smart! In charge of a suicide team going through the stargate, okay, but in charge of the project?? Don’t think so.)
The biggest problem the team has is deciphering the kartouche in the center of the disk-shaped tablet: six glyphs in a vertical line with a seventh below. Spader sees a picture of the constellation, Orion, and realizes that that’s one of the glyphs.
Jump forward to a meeting where Spader presents his findings. The six symbols are “an address of sorts.” He explains that you need six points in three-dimensional space to specify a coordinate. Now, most of us only need three: X, Y & Z, but okay, let’s say we’re not dealing with rectangular mapping. The idea here is that you draw lines between pairs of points and the intersection is the point you want.
Wait, it gets worse. (1) If you can specify six points, why not just specify the one you want? Okay, if the entire constellation of Orion is one point (but see below), perhaps you can only specify very general areas. (2) How do you know which pairs to draw lines between? Okay, perhaps you draw from #1 to #2, from #3 to #4, and from #5 to #6.
But wait. From what point in the constellation do you draw the line? It could make a difference… constellations aren’t small. But even worse, Spader goes on to say that there are seven coordinates. The first six specify the destination, the seventh specifies the origin. Why do you only need one for the origin when you need six for the destination?
Then we find out that this destination is “on the other side of the known universe!” So how is it that one of your six points (and presumably the other five) is a constellation in our own milky way galaxy? Any star you can see with the naked eye is in this here local galaxy!
And Orion is only Orion from Earth’s point of view. From anywhere else, it’s just stars scattered all over the place. As a way of specifying a point, it’s pretty much completely worthless.
Well, it turns out that Spader hasn’t been told everything. He’s never been shown the giant ring which is in a room all of its own with just tons and tons of “high-tech” support/analysis gear. Turns out that other members of the team have gotten as far as aligning the first six glyphs on the ring with “chevrons”. But they were too stupid to notice that the seventh glyph below the kartouche had a matching glyph on the ring. Thank God for Spader, eh?
So they fire up this baby, and apparently they knew all along that it was a stargate of some kind, since they have a big ol’ star chart there. Well they line up the seventh glyph, and the room starts a-shakin’ and a-rockin’. We get to see some neat effects (obviously done with water and turned 90 degrees, but still kinda cool). And then they send through a tracked, unmanned probe.
Here’s an example of what I see as bad movie-making: The vehicle enters the room accompanied by guys with automatic weapons (and a high degree of tension). As soon as the probe passes through the gate, they leave. Well, what the hell was their purpose? If we’re afraid of something coming through the gate, shouldn’t they be hanging around? [Ed: or have been there all along?] Or were they afraid a team member would try to steal the probe? It’s just movie smoke!
Anyway, the probe’s gone through and they announce that, “It’s on the other side of “the known universe.” Arg! How in the hell do they know that?! To pass anything through the gate from the other side, you have to open the gate from the other side (we find out later). And there ain’t no signal coming back from “the other side of the known universe.”
So then Russell’s team of nondescript, mostly generic miltypes is to go through to check it out. Spader says he has to go to figure out the way back. Apparently, you need six coordinates to specify the place as a destination, but only one to specify it as an origin and six to specify earth as the return destination. Arg!
Anyway, they let him go. Good thing, too! If Spader hadn’t brought along his candy bars and the pendant the old lady gave him (the one she swiped off the table in 1928), Lord knows what would’ve happened.
They pass through (ripping off 2001 along wat) and find themselves in an Egypt-like desert place. Spader finds a camel-like beast which leads him to a huge group of slaves working on something (a pyramid?). Russell and a few others follow. They all meet the Head Honcho, who notices Spader’s pendant with great reaction. Everyone falls to their knees, and then Honcho takes Spader and company back to the town.
Then a big old sandstorm comes which (1) causes the town to have a party and (2) wipes out the base camp where the rest of Russell’s men are which forces them back into the structure with the gate. Spader tries to query Honcho about the glyphs by drawing them in the sand.
Honcho reacts like Spader made a social blunder and takes him away to be washed by old women. Then a pretty young girl comes in and starts to disrobe. Spader stops her. She’s bummed. He makes up with her and queries her about the glyphs. She doesn’t want to look at first, but later takes Spader to a secret underground place with hieroglyphics. These tell the whole story.
But meanwhile, back at the gate, the remaining men are being taken out by we-don’t-know-what-yet. And more movie-making foolishness.
If you were going to send a team of men through a stargate, wouldn’t you want to (1) send a fair number? (2) send a lot of supplies? (3) send more than simple automatic weapons with them? (4) and, most importantly, send men who know better than to move backwards without looking behind them?!
I thought that only happened in bad horror films.
Turns out later that two of the bad guy’s soldiers took out all the rest of Russell’s (supposedly) crack team. What’s happened is that this huge “spaceship” (pyramid) has landed on top of the existing pyramid with the gate (not bad effects, tho). In it is Mr. Bad Guy and his Egyptian palace and his attendants (little boys and girls) and his soldiers.
Back in town, Russell has found Spader in the secret place and Spader explains about this alien who’s been using the body of boys to live forever and ever. Turns out this alien got kicked off earth somehow, but brought a bunch of people with it to start a new culture on “the other side of the known universe.”
And has kept them in chains and outlawed writing.
Spader finds a kartouche with the six coordinates to get back to earth, but the seventh (the origin) is broken off and the pieces worn down. Oh, oh. Looks like they might just be stuck.
So Russell, Spader, et al. go back to find out why the other guys won’t answer the phone. Russell finds a few spent ammo cases and knows that something was up.
Oh, did I mention the bomb? Russell brought along a bomb to blow up that side of the gate. Good old milparanoia! But he was going to let everyone else go back… Anyway, the bomb is missing!
Then they all get captured (Spader gets killed) and brought before the bad guy, Jaye Davidson from The Crying Game. And since they wouldn’t have gotten a very good Bad Guy voice from him, they do a Darth Vader with his voice even when he isn’t wearing his headgear (they do that Batmobile Shield thing (or the Rustolium commercial thing) with the headgear opening and closing… kinda neat, but we’ve seen it).
Bad Guy’s pissed because of the bomb. He hypnotizes Spader such that Spader is going to kill Russell and a few others. Oh, did I mention that he brings Spader back to life? He brings Spader back to life with a machine of his… that’s why he likes Earthlings so much: Their bodies are “so easy to repair.”
Bad Guy calls a big assembly (thousands of extras and four times as many posts with clothing on them) to watch Spader kill Russell and crew Fortunately, one of the young men that Russell befriends…
(SIDEBAR: See, Russell is bummed cause his kid “accidentally shot himself” and this is supposed to provide motivation for his bad attitude in the beginning (which magically dissipates later) and for his relationship with the local young men. He’s willing to teach the main young man to smoke Marlboro’s, but not to let them use guns. My, oh, my, oh, my.)
…uses the cigarette lighter Russell gave him to shine sunshine in Spader’s face. This unhynotizes Spader so he can turn and shoot some of the minor bad guys (but not the main one, oh no, that would be cheating) and get away.
Turns out the pretty girl Spader didn’t lay was apparently to be married to him (she didn’t tell the others that he “didn’t want” her). Spader is touched, and at the end of the film decides to stay with her. But I get ahead of myself.
Russell, his remaining men and the young local men all go back to fight the Bad Guy. This is important because Bad Guy is going to send the bomb through the gate along with a load of the special mineral the gate is made of (which will increase the yield of the bomb 100 times).
Russell and crew disguise themselves with the caravan bringing the load of mineral and overcome the guards. Russell sets the bomb for seven minutes (the film does get mildly exciting at this point, but I was so insulted by most of it that I didn’t much care… besides, these days all mainstream films have happy endings).
But Spader’s gal got killed in the action, so he takes her and transports up to the palace (there’s a cute (but dumb) transporter effect involving rings that drop from the ceiling) to use the body-fixing machine.
Luckily for him, no one’s around so he can repair her. With the bomb still counting down from seven minutes… it was rigged so that once Russell started it, he couldn’t disable it. (Right. Do you know how hard it is to make a bomb work? Do you know how easy it is to break?) But as he’s carrying her out, he’s spotted by Bad Guy and they have a fight.
Meanwhile, Russell’s men are outside having a firefight with the bat-planes and are in deep doo-doo. They can only opt to surrender, the planes land, the soldiers approach…
Meanwhile, Russell has problems of his own inside. The head Bad Guy soldier was sent to dispatch Russell and send through the bomb. So Russell and that soldier fight.
Outside, just as it looks like curtains for the men, over the crest of the dunes comes the soon-to-be-former-slaves. Earlier, Russell and crew had killed a Bad Guy soldier, done the Rustolium trick on his headgear to show the slaves that their gods were just men behind headgear. Well, Head Honcho and the rest of the slaves finally got the courage to overthrow their gods and show up just in time.
Inside, Russell’s getting is butt kicked, and, upstairs, Spader’s not doing too well, either. But Russell gets the upper hand by activating the transporter rings which drop down and decapitate the soldier. It just so happens that Spader’s battle is taking place on the transporter spot upstairs, so when the soldier’s head transports up, Spader and his gal transport down.
And luckily, the stargate ring doesn’t actually need all that support gear to activate it. Earlier, Spader saw one of the young men drawing the symbol of their victory, the glyph of their world, the key to the trip home, recognized it as such…
(SIDEBAR: another sore point: This world has three moons. You’d think a big budget film like this would have an artist draw three new ones rather than using our moon in three different sizes and rotations. Anyway, the glyph for their world is much like the one for Earth, but with three moon symbols replacing the one sun (moons for a sun in a culture that worships Ra, the sun “god”?). For that matter,… oh, never mind.)
Anyway, we don’t get to see them do it, but they do activate the gate. But before that, Bad Guy decides things aren’t going his way, activates his huge pyramid spaceship and takes off (Remember, all this has happened since Russell started the seven minute countdown!) and gets up into orbit. But our heroes use the transporter one last time to send the bomb up to Bad Guy (with only a few seconds left to spare).
Russell goes home with his remaining men, Spader stays, opting for a primitive culture rather than ours, and everyone lives happily ever after. The End.
There. I just saved you a few bucks. Wait for it to show up on cable.
Well, I’m glad I got that off my chest (after all these years)!
But the film is a good example of a point I made a long time ago (see Two Important Things): With science fiction, I hate it when the science or the fiction has too many points that break me out of my willing suspension of disbelief. Stargate was constantly poking me that way, so I ended up hating the film.
It’s no surprise. Writer-director Roland Emmerich is the man behind Independence Day (which I didn’t care much for), Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, and 2012. All of which I thought were pretty awful.
Emmerich makes the kind of big-screen blockbuster pop SF film that many long-time serious science fiction fans have a hard time liking. They’re actually a bit polarizing in how they divide fans.
I tend to be hostile towards anything pop or trendy, so it’s pretty obvious on which side of the line I fall! Get off my SF lawn, you damn pop pretenders!
In any event, there it is, another item off my pile.