Lionsgate’s second run at a Blu-Ray release for STARGATE is a mixed-to-good affair, but it does represent an upgrade from their first, embarrassingly shoddy, barebones release.
While flogging his controversial theories on the origin of the Giza pyramids to a less than enthusiastic audience in New York, Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is approached by the elderly Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors) with an interesting job – to translate the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics on a tablet unearthed in 1928 by Langford’s father, which is now the centerpiece of a top secret military project in Colorado. Once Jackson correctly interprets the tablet as describing a “stargate”, the the actual device – circular, metallic, ringed with a pattern of hieroglyphics that, thanks to Jackson, can now be correctly aligned – is taken over by the military in the form of Col. O’Neil (Kurt Russell), and the gate is opened. A probe sent through reveals that the gate leads to a planet on the other side of the solar system with an Earth-like atmosphere. O’Neil and his team (including Jackson, brought to interpret the symbols on the other gate for the return trip) enter next, and find themselves inside a near duplicate of the great pyramid of Giza in the middle of a vast desert. The inhabitants of this world resemble in appearance and language those of ancient Egypt, even to the point of worshipping the symbol of the sun-God, Ra. But the God they worship is no deity, but the last of an alien race that used the gate to bring slave labor from Earth’s past, even stealing the body of a young Egyptian boy (Jaye Davidson) to extend its life. The creature has enslaved the people, who mine for the minerals that fuel its technology, and with a reactivated gate, now sets its sights on modern-day Earth.
Stargate carries some interesting baggage: it’s not a particularly great film; in fact, it actually looses dramatic momentum soon after the men step through the gate itself. But the idea is so intriguing that it lures us back for a peek every few years to see if we’re missing something – not for nothing has the film spawned (at my rough estimate) 4 different television series that all took the core plot point of the film and ran like hell with it. Director Roland Emmerich came to the project hot on the heels of the surprisingly effective Universal Soldier, wherein he proved himself adept at dealing with the rigors of sci-fi-action filmmaking without costs spiraling out of control.
Stargate seemed like natural follow-up material, but the script by Emmerich and producing partner Dean Devlin isn’t quite up to the load capacity placed on it. We vividly remember the crush of disappointment once our heroes stepped through to the alien world, only to find the burlap sack-costumed extras running around a village set that wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Xena (imagine if Star Wars began on the Death Star and then moved to Tatooine where it remained for 2/3rds of the running time). We’ve already been prepared for the alien civilization looking much like ancient Egypt, thus killing any ‘chariots of the Gods’ excitement about the origin of ancient Egyptian culture. The film simply stalls out too long in the initial contact between our protagonists and the peasant people of the planet, with our heroes showing the natives the miracles of butane lighters and 5th Avenue bars in scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in a ’30s Tarzan film. The arrival of “Ra” makes things a little more exciting, but the script can’t do much with it other than have Davidson vamp about (the actor’s famously androgynous appearance does more to sell the concept than anything else) while the audience waits for action beats that the expensive production seems shy about delivering.
The strong cast does much to help us buy the concept, with Russell (with military hair cut in the most aggressively geometric pattern we’ve ever seen) turning in typically strong work as a stoic military man shattered by the recent death of his son. Spader brings a lot of humor to Dr. Jackson, and adds welcome notes of masculinity to the traditional “nerd” role. There’s also fine support from Lindfors (her final role) who could effortlessly lend even the most outrageous moments total credibility, and also from the mysterious Davidson, who left acting and returned to the fashion industry after this film. Sharp-eyed viewers will catch an unlikely French Stewart as one of O’Neil’s military team, Deadwood’s Leon Rippy as the military head of the Stargate project, and Dijmon Hounsou as one of Ra’s guards. The picture is aided immensely by David Arnold’s lush score, a cross between John Williams and Maurice Jarre, along with the superb production design of Patrick Tatopoulos.
Lionsgate picked up the home video rights to Stargate along with numerous other pictures from the Carolco library (a once formidable mini-major studio brought low by the disastrous Cutthroat Island in 1995). Lionsgate’s second run at a Blu-Ray release for the title is a mixed-to-good affair. They seem to be working off the same film master, but there’s less obvious print damage and the 1080p image is serviceable, if not much more (this does count, to us anyway, as an upgrade from their first BD, an embarrassingly shoddy, barebones release). The audio too, has received a bump, with a lossless 7.1 DTS track. Both cuts of the film have also been included; the original theatrical version, running 2:00:47, and an extended cut running 2:09:36.
The most substantial of the new extras is a featurette on the production and legacy of the film, split into 3 parts but playable in 1 (presented in HD and running just over 20min); it features new interviews with Emmerich and Devlin – who are also featured in a recycled audio commentary track. There’s also a bizarre film, apparently made by and for the crew during production, billed as a “gag reel”, a P-I-P info feature, and a trivia track. The original theatrical trailer is also included in HD.