Enormous production values, seamless special effects and an old-fashioned deployment of huge sets and armies of extras are harnessed in the service of an amazingly ramshackle script that recycles pulpy chunks of the lesser science fiction stories of the 30s and the ‘lost world’ romances of Rider Haggard and his imitators. While a very few elements, such as the growling GI who has the archetypal grunt name of ‘Kawalski’, suggest nostalgic knowingness of cliché, this is mainly played remarkably straight. Director Emmerich hammers home every point with undue emphasis: Kurt Russell is first seen contemplating his gun and his son’s photograph as he sits gloomily in the kid’s abandoned room, but a couple of lesser characters then have to discuss the boy’s death to make sure that those at the back of the class who haven’t been paying attention get the point.

As the plot zooms to the other side of the universe, things get even sillier: Jackson only admits he can’t make the stargate work both ways once they’ve arrived, then spends odd moments contemplating hieroglyphs to work out how it works, though the evil Ra seems quite willing to set the co-ordinates when it comes to sending back Earth’s bomb. That Americans – who have somehow gained possession of an historical artefact unearthed in Egypt and feel empowered to act on behalf of all humanity – send Ra the bomb that threatens the home planet is less an irony than lazy plotting. This lack of focus becomes disastrous in the finale as three climaxes – the slave revolt, Jackson trying to revive his temporarily dead love interest, a fistfight between O’Neil and the head goon – are cut against each other, with the bomb ticking away in the background.

The ‘heart-warming’ business of O’Neil’s relationship with a desert urchin is extremely tiresome, but the equally clichéd relationship of the eager Jackson and the winning Sha’ura is a more acceptable evocation of the native romances of Hollywood sarong epics. Jaye Davidson, a limited performer who has miraculously found another part only he could play, swans about in Egyptian frocks and a computer-generated shape-shifting head-dress as the evil Ra, merging from a Dr. Phibes-style hi-tech sarcophagus to add a welcome note of Edgar Rice Burroughs-ish camp to the surprisingly stolid desert rebellion plot. There is a smug element of unattractive patronising as slaves whipped up against their masters act like every American administration’s fantasy of a grateful Third World populace begging for military aid. They are presumably capable of abandoning the Ancient Egyptian system, all they’ve know, for a simulation of parliamentary democracy. The triteness is such that Jackson’s decision to stay behind with his native girl prompts less romantic admiration than wonderment that anyone would volunteer to spend the rest of his life on a planet without dentists.

© Kim Newman for Sight and Sound 2/1995 (Thank you, Tatjana!)