RE:View – StargateThe Dark Herald
This intellectual property has passed its quarter century mark and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be swept under the pop cultural rug any time soon.
One movie, two long running series, a couple of straight to DVD flicks and a single season disaster.
And, oh yes, Stargate Catherine. Since (I can state with perfect conviction that) you never saw it. The plot has something to do with Nazis just before the start of WWII. The lead for what has always been a he-man action-adventure franchise was (of course) a young woman. She was the silly action figure version of the old lady from the first movie, Catherine. The show featured men being in awe of what an ass-kicker she suddenly turned into. It also introduced dudes kissing to the Stargate-verse. My review of that dumpster fire is here.
The Stargate franchise has always had fairly strong female characters without making any them into men with tits. Starting with the first one, Stargate (1994).
After some measured success with Moon 44 and Universal Solider; Stargate was Roland Emmerich’s shot at the big time and there is no getting around it, he hit the target. A twenty-million-dollar film that made around two hundred million worldwide. Rather than make a sequel he moved on to become the king of the Nineties Disaster Movies.
Can’t fault his career choice. Although recently, he tried to reboot Stargate with the brilliant idea of chucking 100% of the TV canon. His vision and only his vision was to be the one that counted. This flick appears to have died in development and Stargate fans everywhere are deeply grateful. In truth, the TV series was in production for so long that the original film is barely a footnote by now. The fans would have rejected it out of hand.
Emmerich’s ideas for the reboot were totally wrong but credit where it’s due, he got a lot right with the first film.
Not that it didn’t have its downsides as well.
The very first thing is the music. There is no getting around it. This is undoubtedly David Arnold’s best work and it contributes massively to the film’s tone. Honestly, I’m not sure Stargate would have ever been anything other than some utterly forgotten, medium grade, mid-90’s popcorn burner if it hadn’t been for Arnold’s score. In my view, it’s up there with John William’s Star Wars and it absolutely carried the picture. When the film begins, the opening strands of flutes conveyed ancient mystery, then it slowly built to a magnificent crescendo that brilliantly depicted glorious wonder.
Emmerich’s direction and cinematography were also good. He was just coming out of the Indy world so he was used to doing a lot with a little. Here, he managed to recreate the feel of a Cecil B Demille’s biblical epic with what was, in its day, a shoestring budget.
The acting was good. This is Kurt Russel’s most under-rated performance. You could really see the pain in his eyes, as a father whose only son was tragically dead. He was a man with nothing to live for and was thus quite willing to die. Duty was the only thing that was animating him.
James Spader’s Daniel Jackson was a brilliant but demi-autistic Egyptologist, whose quest for a truth that he knew to be real, had utterly destroyed his career and his reputation. That was well presented when we are introduced to Catherine, who points out, “everything you own is in those to two bags.” It was only natural that he would leap for a chance to prove his theories right.
Shau’ri as portrayed by Israeli actress Mili Avital, while born into a genuinely patriarchal society and was given to a stranger as a gift, turned out to be strong enough to start a rebellion on behalf of a husband she literally had only just met the day before. This is how you portray a genuinely strong woman.
One performance that is always neglected was by Carlos Lauchu as the chief guard. When O’Neil nearly gets a shot off at Ra, the Chief Guard subdues him and starts beating him. But he clearly isn’t beating him in anger, he is beating him in abject terror. Nobody has gotten this close to laying a hand on his god in a thousand years and it happened on his watch. It added a layer to the setting. Even the guards were completely terrified of their hated god.
These guys all brought the goods. Nobody was phoning it in.
The script. It really isn’t one of the all-time greats. This was after all a Roland Emmerich film and he prefers to tell a story in sweeping imagery. Okay so far as that goes but…
The film opens in 1922 in Egypt. In less than two minutes we see some of the worst archaeology this side of Indiana Jones. Little Catherine steals an artifact off of a cataloging table because she thinks it’s pretty. Horrifyingly egregious field practice but then that was to be expected because the professor in charge, clearly learned his craft at the feet of Heinrich Schliemann. Without any kind of orders from him, the workers start (for no apparent reason at all) to haul this big metal ring they just found upright.
While the cinematography does what Emmerich wanted it to and evokes images of Hebrew Slaves raising a monolith, the emotional impact was quite far from pure. By 1994 pretty much everyone knew that you didn’t do stuff like that during an archaeological dig. I recall that I was expecting the professor to start screaming at them, “stop it, you morons! What the hell are you doing?! This is site contamination! This is destruction of the dig field. You’re ruining my life’s work!” But no, he just stands there in wonder and astonishment.
Later in the film. When Daniel spots some Airman reading a newspaper, he makes a deus ex machina leap in logic that allows him eureka his way to the conclusion that the symbols on the gate are constellations.
Okay, occasionally you need to kick start a story and in truth, I’ve done worse myself. But then we find out that they had long since been able to plug in six of the seven symbols needed to activate it. Yeah, there was a lot of random pictograph crap on this device, but they had it for seventy-two years! It was another Roland Emmerich WTF moment, where any reasonably mid-to-low wit audience member was saying, “why the hell didn’t they just try each symbol? Just try each one, you’ve literally had decades to work this out.” I know Emmerich likes to keep things dumbed down but seriously, anyone who could successfully manage to pick his own nose, was again left going, “oh come on, movie! Stop it!”
The recon mission is possibly the least well-thought-out military expedition in history. “Doctor Jackson says he can decode the dial home address from the other side. Let’s roll! … Aw shit, he just remembered to tell us he’ll need a rock with the Stargate address for Earth on the other side of the wormhole. Maybe, we should have talked things over with him a bit more before taking a one-way trip to the other side of the universe.” Honestly, the Donner Party had things better planned than this.
And why all those flairs instead of flashlights? Flashlights are good. NVG maybe a bit better when you aren’t trying to skyline yourself to the locals. Which admittedly wasn’t a big priority for this mission now that I think about it.
This film is filled with bilge like this.
Imagery superseded any kind of real-world logical restraints on the story. It’s lazy but it has to be said, James Cameron does the exact same damn thing.
Besides, that wasn’t the worst thing in this movie.
In the early 1990s there was no greater source of dudebro fun than watching The Crying Game with a friend who wasn’t in on the “secret.”
Dark Herald the Younger (watching his friend’s face and not the screen): Whoa, things are getting good, now! Let’s see what she’s got!
Dudebro Friend: Who is this chick? I’ve never seen her before. Yeah, she’s totally smoking hot. Kind of a flatty but DUDE! WHAT THE FUCK?
Dark Herald the Younger: Ha! Ha! Ha! (gasp…wheez…gasp) Ha! Ha! Ha!
Dudebro Friend: No! NONONO!
Dark Herald the Younger: You’re gay now! You were turned on by a dude. Totally gay!
Good times. Good times.
There is no denying it, Jay Davidson had a gift. But it was a weird one. He was a man who could send out the actual female vibe.
Most Trans want to do it but can’t. He could. In The Crying Game, it was great for shock value when the big reveal happened. But in Stargate it was very odd and off-putting because he was meant to be playing a 10,000-year-old boy. As creepy as Jaye Davidson’s androgyny was, it didn’t hold a candle to the homo-erotic pedophilia on display.
Back when I first saw it, I dismissed it with a, meh, the director is trying to do an old timey Ancient Movie Egypt look.
Given what we have found out in the last few years, the scales have fallen from my eyes. The cesspit is pretty deep in Hollywood. If something looks creepy to you then the motives behind it were undoubtedly just as creepy. You don’t come up with images like that unless your imagination spends a lot of time in that place.
“For me, being gay in Hollywood was easy,” Roland Emmerich recently said.
When Stargate was adapted for television, it was first broadcast on Showtime. Showtime demanded a nude scene for an actress and it’s to the producer’s credit that he fought hard against it. It was shot anyway but he still fought it. When I recently rewatched the pilot, I saw that the full-frontal scene in question had been changed into a ‘from the shoulders up, shot.’ Good for him.
For his part Jay Davidson, quit acting and went back to being a model. I’d say good for him as well but now he’s a tatted out circus freak.
So, in conclusion. Stargate was a film where the science was done by people who didn’t science at all. The story was incredibly weak in every way available to it. Style mattered drastically more than substance and there was a strong pedophile vibe to it.
But the music is still great and it’s still a decent enough action/adventure/explorer film.
If you want to see good versions of Stargate, no problem. SG1 and Atlantis, are available on Amazon Prime now, as well as the made for DVD films of Continuum and Ark of Truth.
Stargate Universe is also available, but it was touched by John Scalzi and so tragically it is utter crap.
Stargate: Catherine, isn’t so much bad as it is incompetent. Avoid like the plague.
Okay, I’m done here.