“Stargate” has one of those plots that naturally causes people to roll their eyes. Commercial prospects for this curiously unabsorbing yarn border on the dire.
What this juvenile adventure has in spades is special effects and picturesque locations. What it lacks is an emotional link to make the Saturday afternoon he-man posturing palatable, or at least bearable. Its core appeal is to pre-teens, and considering its mammoth budget ($ 60 million-$ 70 million), half-price tickets won’t be enough to part the enveloping sea of red ink.
The setup occurs in Giza, Egypt, circa 1928. An archaeological expedition unearths a giant ring inscribed with hieroglyphs of unknown origin and meaning. We’re promptly propelled into the present, where Egyptologist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is telling a learned, if disbelieving, crowd that the pyramids could not possibly have been built by man. Only one listener stays behind, offering him the job of translating an ancient stone lodged in a secret and remote military complex. It is, of course, the piece seen at the beginning. Never mind how it was transported across the ocean or its whereabouts for most of this century.
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Suffice it to say that the symbols turn out to be a map rather than a language. The ring is a portal to another dimension — an entrance to the land of the true builders of one of the seven wonders. Are your eyes spinning yet?
Breaking the impenetrable code leads to a military probe commanded by former basket case Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell). Jackson tags along as interpreter and on the other side discovers something akin to “Lawrence of Arabia” outtakes with a pinch of “The Ten Commandments” and a dash of the “Star Wars” trilogy.
The inhabitants of this world are biblical-style slaves, the ruler a galactic hermaphrodite (Jaye Davidson). It’s all downhill from there. The oppressed workers, with the help of the soldiers and scientist, rise up to quell the evil oppressor. It’s pretty standard, predictable stuff.
Director Roland Emmerich pushes the obvious plot buttons, turns up the florid score and injects appropriate panoramas. It’s a textbook scenario that creaks with age and whose lack of originality cannot be obscured with visual craft.
Pic should be more visceral. But every time the story gets perilously close to an emotional moment, the focus shifts abruptly to some corny bit of action. O’Neil never truly confronts the dark past of a dead son, and Jackson’s budding relationship with a slave (Mili Avital) is chaste beyond belief.
The acting challenge is simply to keep a straight face and not look like a total imbecile. It’s arguable that anyone succeeds at the task.
And despite the ever-present, state-of-the-art technology, there’s hardly a single indelible image in the course of two hours. One walks away uncertain whether there is a film called “Stargate,” or if it was merely a dream composed of badly remembered movie cliches.
[A 126-min. Collector’s ed ition was released on homevideo in 1996.]