Magill's Survey of Cinema



When an Egyptologist, Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader), decodes the hieroglyphics on a large stone wheel retrieved from Egypt, he discovers it is really a portal to another world. Jackson then accompanies a military expedition headed by Colonel Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell) to the planet Abydos, which is ruled by an evil alien, Ra (Jaye Davidson).

Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is an undoubtedly brilliant archeologist with some unpopular--if not laughable--ideas about ancient Egypt. He believes that the Egyptians of the IV Dynasty could not have possibly built the pyramids. For one thing, there was no writing inside the structures, even though it was invented during the first two dynasties. For him, that is enough to believe someone or something else built them. His colleagues, however, laugh him off the podium.

He does find one ally: Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors). She is the daughter of the archeologist who, in 1928, discovered a coverstone that was believed to be of great significance. Unfortunately, all attempts to translate the hieroglyphics on it have been unsuccessful--until Catherine hires Daniel to do the job. He does in thirteen days what her previous scholars had not been able to do in two years.

With Daniel's insight, the cover stone, now housed in a Colorado military instillation, is determined to be a portal that charts a path into space--from Earth to the planet Abydos. All the scientists have to do is set the rings of the portal correctly and immediately and mysteriously the door is open.

Ready to step through the door is a group of military men headed by Colonel Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell) and Daniel, who promises that he can get them back as soon as he reads the hieroglyphs on the portal at the other end of the journey. They enter the portal and, after a trip through time and space, find themselves at the other end of their journey inside a pyramid at Abydos that is a replica of the Great Pyramid at Giza. When they step outside, however, there is nothing but desert. The planet appears uninhabited.

Unfortunately, there is also no sign of the opposite portal stone either. Daniel cannot get the men home without it, and they are very angry. Soon, however, they discover that the planet is inhabited. They stumble on people who look like Earth bedouins of old, who seem to be virtual slaves working in the mines at the mercy of some unseen power. Daniel's linguistic expertise, and a relationship with the native woman Sha'uri (Mili Avital), finally allow him to interpret their language. His excitement grows when their language turns out to be a spoken derivative of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs from Earth.

At the same time, he also discovers who their master is: Ra (Jaye Davidson). On Earth, Ra was the mythological Egyptian sun god, but on Abydos he is a living, breathing, and vengeful ruler who occasionally stops by, landing his spaceship pyramid and terrorizing his slave population.

Daniel now has his answer as to who really built the pyramids. Ra was the last member of a dying race. He searched the galaxy for a way to save his life. When he stumbled upon the primitive people of Egypt on Earth, he found how easy it was to repair human bodies and decided to inhabit one. Immediately, he began to change Egyptian civilization until, one day, his Earthlings rebelled against his rule. So, Ra moved on, through the space portal, to a new location, Abydos, where he also took along enough Earthlings to work his mines.

Since Daniel is still unable to find the way back to Earth, O'Neil reveals his secret mission: if he finds the situation to be dangerous on the other side of the portal, he is to blow it up. Since he is depressed and suicidal anyway because of the accidental shooting death of his son, he seems the perfect candidate for the job. When O'Neil realizes how much power Ra has, he sets the nuclear weapon to go off. Ra, however, discovers the bomb and plans on using the gate to send it back to Earth--along with the metal he mines on Abydos, which will increase its power.

By this time, Daniel has taught the transplanted slaves about their history, and O'Neil has taught them about rebellion. As Ra's pyramidical spaceship lifts off, the natives are restless and the bomb is transported not to Earth but aboard Ra's ship at the last minute. Daniel finds the other portal stone and is able to translate it to return the remnants of the troop back to earth again. He, however, will remain behind to study (and probably lead) the remnants of the ancient civilization he has given his intellectual life to.

The premise for STARGATE is a great one. It takes on one of modern society's popular myths (that men from outer space built the pyramids--both in Egypt and in South and Central America) and fleshes it out into a science fiction motion picture complete with impressive special effects, stirring music, spectacular cinematography, and solid acting. What could possibly go wrong? According to critics, a lot. According to moviegoers, nothing.

On its opening weekend, STARGATE was first at the box office, with receipts of $16.8 million--the biggest October opening as of 1994. It was also the biggest box office return for shaky MGM since Rocky IV did $19 million in 1984. STARGATE's numbers prove that there is a market for spectacular cinematic science fiction, even if it is panned by the critics. Unlike the oppressive and unsuccessful DUNE (1984) with which it invites obvious comparison, STARGATE has enough going for it to elevate it above its ponderous counterpart. It has the grandeur and spectacle of a STAR WARS (1977), the history, action, and adventure of a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981), and the special effects of a STAR TREK (1979). What this also shows, is that STARGATE is also a bit derivative.

Even if one concedes that virtually all science fiction films are derivative of one another, there is still another problem with this film, and it is the one that caused rejection by critics. The film takes a great central idea and buries it in a story that ranges from complex to hokey to ludicrous to absent. There are many very obvious, logical questions left unanswered by this film, and each one of them puts a bigger hole in its believability--and suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential to a science fiction film. First, where has the portal stone been since 1928 and why? Why was only one scientist sent through the portal--and an archeologist at that? Why would the army chose soldiers who were psychologically so negative and hostile to go into uncharted territory? Why did the writers have to rely on so many convenient plot ploys? (O'Neil's dead child providing his suicidal tendency that would jeopardize and destroy such an important mission, and also prevent him from wanting to arm the rebelling children; Jackson's loss of income and homelessness causing him to have no reason to return to Earth.) Furthermore, why would slave children who are frightened by a cigarette lighter take so easily to rebellion and modern weapons? What was Ra mining metal for anyway?

If one is willing, however, to put one's sense of logic on hold, STARGATE can be an appealing afternoon's entertainment. The plot may have holes, and the actors may be a bit one-dimensional and archetypical (Russell's macho colonel, Spader's befuddled scholar, Davidson's exotic evilness), but all the other positive elements (its looks, action, basic premise, music, and special effects) can be more than enough for some filmgoers to plunk down the price of a ticket. (Reviewed by Beverley Bare Buehrer.)

Review Sources:
Chicago Tribune. October 28, 1994, p. 7D.
Daily Variety. October 24, 1994, p. 2.
Entertainment Weekly. November 11, 1994, p. 50.
The Hollywood Reporter. October 24, 1994, p. 5.
Los Angeles Times. October 28, 1994, p. F15.
The New York Times. October 28, 1994, p. B1.
Time. November 21, 1994, p. 116.
USA Today. October 28, 1994, p. 4D.

Named persons in Production Credits:
Joel B. Michaels
Oliver Eberle
Dean Devlin
Mario Kassar


Screenplay (Author):
Dean Devlin
Roland Emmerich

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