Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stargate (April 2 at the CWRU Film Society, Strosacker Auditorium)

[STARGATE screens Saturday April 2 at 7 and 9:30 p.m. at the CWRU Film Society, Strosacker Auditorium]
Review by Charles Cassady Jr.

If you'd told me when STARGATE premiered in 1994 that it was going to be the cornerstone of a successful science-fiction franchise, I probably wouldn't have believed it, any more than I thought Battlestar Galactica would have an illustrious second life. To me, STARGATE was a nice try - a gangbusters first half of a really fun escapist fantasy that just didn't pay off. Obviously I'm not a good fortuneteller of the future (could've used a few stern warnings about my own), but I'll cling with my tattered, 20-year-old opinion here, take it or leave it.

Important thing to know, at least for me at the time, is that this was the big Hollywood entree for the filmmaking-writing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, two guys who had previously done most of their work in West Germany, cranking out, no, not angsty cut-your-wrists Rainer Werner Fassbinder film-festival melodramas but imitation Tinseltown Lucas-Spielberg sci-fi kitsch, like MOON 44, done with ever-escalating budget and polish. I always thought of these guys as the ultimate fanboy backyard-filmmakers, but with real 35mm and backlots to play around on. When they came to the US the sheer joy of their finding their element - here and in the subsequent INDEPENDENCE DAY and the much-disliked GODZILLA remake - is almost enough to compensate for their chronic-fanboy mentality and material of the level of Perry Rhodan or pulp magazines of the 1930s. 

But at least this time it made a neat opener, as good as one could ask for pulps or Perry Rhodan. An archaeology dig in Egypt has unearthed an arch that's no mere Pharoah decoration but a high-tech alien portal to a different part of time/space altogether. Leading the first human expedition into the Stargate is a Daniel Jackson (James Spader), science-geek believer in the ancient-astronaut theory of antiquity, odd-coupled as only an Emmerich-Devlin script might, with a tough military guy Jack O'Neill (Kurt Russell) on the brink of LETHAL WEAPON-ish suicide after losing a son. Yeah, pure comic-book, but coupled with the faux-Spielberg direction and stirring soundtrack music there's that famed "sense of wonder" in the exposition stage, as all the stereotypes assemble in front of the incredible artifact, bringing along a remote-controlled robot and weaponry and - secretly - a handy A-bomb that O'Neil is to use in case of hostile E.T.s. This potboiler means business. Whatever happens, nobody's going to be having tearful reunions with the reincarnation of their late daddy, like Jodie Foster would under remotely similar circumstances in CONTACT.

Unfortunately, once the team goes through the Stargate we find ourselves in what looks like an old Steve Reeves flick. The explorers stumble acros a friendly, seemingly pre-industrial Egyptian-descended civilization. They turn out to be in thrall to an ancient, banished alien baddie Ra and his retinue, who occasionally take jackal-headed Anubis form (these CGI f/x were quite impressive for the era). O'Neill and Jackson lead a slave revolt against Ra and his STAR WARS-y flying drones, and there are very few surprises at all, just the nice light show as everybody dodges laser-fire around sand dunes, and the tired assurance that any nuke introduced in the first act will be detonated in the third. The subsequent showtime TV series Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis replaced Kurt Russell with Richard Dean Anderson in the same character and had the idea to trip through Stargates to various other Earth-derived civilizations throughout the cosmos. Not that I watched the series; even the verdict of the Sci Fi Channel's own guidebook was that "stupidity abounds." Oww! Still, I knew of fans who loved STARGATE, especially the guy who ran Cyber Pete's, that Bedford club which was Cleveland's best-established "cyber cafe" of any repute. This fellow was an amateur Egyptologist and really jammed to Emmerich's pyramid-powered world and the correct use of the word "chevron." Okay, whatever. I still wished the destination was as neat as the build-up.

Ra was played by Jaye Davidson, whose only other major credit was as the cross-dressing love interest in THE CRYING GAME. Word was that Davidson, even with critical praise and Best-Newcomer labels for his breakthrough role, wanted out of showbiz, and when Emmerich wanted him to be the haughty, nonverbal Ra in STARGATE the actor-model asked flatly for a million bucks for the nothing part – his price for drop-dead money, enough to walk away from the movie grind. And the production company paid up, and Davidson indeed left the spotlight, though he still seems to take bit parts now and then.

Wow, I approve this message! This should be a Constitutional amendment: Any crummy movie star who rakes in $1,000,000 or more for a single picture should be compulsively retired. More actors would get their chances at the bigtime, some rather tiresome ones would be gone from our sight, and the billions of dollars saved in the meantime could translate as, I dunno, maybe two-and-a-half fewer Cleveland schools would close? Financing for an extra war in the Mideast? Just a thought. I call it the Jaye Davidson Amendment. (2 1/2 out of 4 stars)

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