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Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Stargate: Watch it. Love it. Learn educational info about real "Egyptian" "archaeology".

Rewatching Stargate for the first time since I was 14, I suspected that it would turn out to be terrible. Partly because my 14-year-old self was not the most sophisticated of movie critics, and partly because I've gained a degree in Ancient History & Archaeology since then. That kind of thing tends to put a dampener on appreciating any media that attempts to be "historical" about "Egypt". Happily, Stargate is so far away from both history and Egypt that it's basically fanfiction for everyone's favourite aliens-built-the-pyramids conspiracy theory, Chariots of the Gods. It's kinda like how most paleontologists love Jurassic Park because FUCK YEAH DINOSAURS, even though the entire movie is like, "OK, we've decided to make Velociraptors 15 times their natural size, For Reasons."
The most surprising (and vaguely depressing) thing about Stargate is how well it holds up when compared to most family-friendly action blockbusters from the past ten years or so. Obviously cinema history is written by the victors and the good movies are generally the only ones to survive, but I still feel like Stargate represents a kind of 80s/90s blockbuster high point that no longer exists. Looking at things like Jurassic Park, The Goonies, The Mummy, Die Hard, etc, probably the only recent adventure movie that measures up is Pirates of the Caribbean. I realise this is cutting a ruthless swathe through a decade of Hollywood, and I'm not saying there haven't been any excellent blockbusters in that time. But compared to something like Stargate or Jurassic Park, recent box-office successes like Avatar or The Dark Knight Rises seem almost tragicomically bland and formulaic.

Many believe that the reason why recent mainstream movies seem so similar is because the filmmakers are all just following a detailed, 15-step plot structure. Which, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Some storylines work just because the pacing is perfect, the structure fits in with our idea of how a narrative should ~feel, and it's satisfying to watch the Good Guys pound the Bad Guys to the pulp in an Inevitable Final Showdown. Stargate doesn't follow this exact structure, but it's still essentially a story about a nerd and a jock teaming up to save the world by nuking an alien spaceship. It just executes this plotline in a far more interesting and engaging way than most movies of the genre, partly because the pacing is brilliant and partly because the characters are three-dimensional and human.
Despite the fact that Stargate is about a group of American soldiers landing on an alien planet and helping the locals (all of whom are unambiguously non-white) overthrow their evil alien dictator, it somehow manages to be about a zillion times less racist than Avatar. Similarly, I was surprised to find that I was way less offended by the lead female character in Stargate literally being offered as a gift to Daniel Jackson, than I was by the treatment of women in Star Trek Into Darkness. The difference between Stargate and many blockbuster movies that use similar problematic tropes is that it seems to be aware of what it's doing. Sure, it's basically a silly entertainment movie about superpowered Egyptian god aliens, but the worldbuilding is solid and when characters and situations are racist or sexist, it actually makes sense in context. Whereas in most adventure movies in modern/futuristic settings, there's really no explanation for why 90% of the characters onscreen are male, or why the few female characters are all super-hot and wearing a generically flattering outfit.
It doesn't take many brain cells to work out why the stupid trope of "US military guys save brown people and/or aliens from tyranny" exists, but in Stargate we at least get a reasonable explanations for how this situation came about. For example, Ra has stupendously impressive technology at his disposal, appears to be a god (meaning that it makes sense to be afraid of weird-looking outsiders coming out of the pyramid), and he forbade reading and writing. That last part being the most significant, because Sha'uri secretly teaching herself to read is ultimately what saves the world. Basically the main lesson of Stargate is that if women get a decent education, then everyone is way less likely to get blown to smithereens by evil alien overlords. (I'm only about 50% joking on that one.)
Stargate isn't exactly progressive, but it's lightyears ahead of most recent movies in the same genre. Daniel Jackson and Jack O'Neill are both in their 30s/40s and have adult problems: the death of a child; a failed academic career. Rather than being motivated by a self-centered adolescent journey of self-discovery or a fridged girlfriend, they have interesting reasons to be doing something as balls-out crazy as travel to an alien planet with no certainty of return. Daniel's thirst for knowledge -- just look at him when he first steps through the Stargate -- is the true beauty of geekdom, while Jack is literally on a suicide mission. Honestly, these are both infinitely more satisfying explanations than anything we get for why the characters in Prometheus (a supposedly classy and cerebral "adult" blockbuster) are traveling to their unknown intergalactic destination.
Physically, Kurt Russell (Jack O'Neill) is half the size of most modern action heroes, and Sha'uri wears double the clothes of most of the guys in the movie. The most sexualised (or at least the most beautified) character in the movie is Ra, who -- while somewhat falling in with the whole "effeminate men = scary aliens" thing -- makes sense in context because his sparkly, immaculate appearance fits with the Egyptian scenario of an opulently wealthy ruling class forcing everyone to work for them and worship them as gods. Plus the ancient Egyptian (or "Egyptian") setting allowed the filmmakers to add the purposefully unsettling detail of Ra being served by a bunch of scantily-clad teen boys, which to modern eyes is pretty creepy -- even though all they're doing is standing around or carrying his cape for him.

Stargate has aged so well because it doesn't treat its audience like idiots. Specifically, it trusts you to work out what's going on without the assistance of clumsy expository dialogue. This is something I picked up on almost immediately, when Catherine, the leader of the Stargate project, explains to Daniel in a single sentence why he needs to come with her: He's homeless, and his grant money just ran out. DELICIOUSLY SIMPLE. Unlike Hollywood's current favourite storyline of "We all know the hero has to go and Do A Thing, but he is Reluctant, so first we must Explain What's Going On In Unnecessary Detail and finally Learn A Lesson about Being A Man."
Similarly, the death of Jack's son is explained in a single (realistic) exchange between two soldiers -- after we've already been introduced to Jack via a separate scene, much like Daniel's intro. Compared to the number of movies where entire scenes are wasted explaining who the characters are and what they're feeling/doing/thinking, this was music to my ears. There are plenty of movies from established franchises that use more exposition than this, to the extent that while Stargate trusts us to just understand what's going on onscreen, Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-Man felt the need to re-explain in agonizing detail How Is Superhero Formed before getting on with the meat of a relatively simple origin story.
I'll be interested to see if I get many comments from people saying things like, "Actually, this whole post is just nostalgia bias." I do realise that sweeping statments like "Hollywood movies are getting worse," are pretty much meaningless, particularly when there have been at least two massive blockbusters in the last couple of years (Pacific Rim and The Avengers spring to mind) that I genuinely loved. But I also feel like there's an element of emotion and childlike wonder in things like Stargate or Jurassic Park that you rarely sense in recent movies of this type. The current trend is for a selfish man-child to overcome some kind of obstacle and then bloodlessly (in order to retain a PG-13 rating) destroy a bunch of buildings and/or people while defeating Evil. In some cases this works out relatively well (Iron Man; Thor), while in others (Star Trek Into Darkness; Man of Steel; TDKR; Elysium) it's not so successful.

However, when you look at the reasons why the good guys are victorious at the end of Stargate, it isn't actually tied into some spurious connection between ~facing your inner demons~ and suddenly gaining the power to pummel the enemy into submission. In fact, the final showdown in Stargate is preposterously small-scale when compared to all recent sci-fi blockbusters, leaving the main CGI presence restricted to worldbuilding details like the Stargate and the retractable helmets worn by Ra's guards. It's sort of fascinating to see how much the popular concept of "everyman with a dark past" characters like Jack O'Neill has changed since the 90s. In the drive towards more "serious" levels of angst and darkness, or more supposedly "relatable" coming-of-age hero roles, we've ended up with a pantheon of superheroes (and antiheroes, and reluctant everyman heroes) who seem more like sociopaths, douchebags, or selfish idiots.

When I think about how many movies I've seen where the main character's wife is killed or kidnapped as an excuse for the hero to go on a killing spree, it seems ridiculous that an ostensibly silly movie like Stargate could contain such a comparatively interesting and complex character as Jack O'Neill. This guy is played by '90s Kurt Russell with a cartoonishly geometrical flat-top haircut, his main role is to look angry and punch aliens, and yet he's still a poignant commentary on American masculinity and mental illness in the military.

In the end, the good guys in Stargate win because a slave girl taught herself to read, a nerd was so nerdy he risked his life to go translate some hieroglyphs on an alien planet, and a suicidal Air Force jock decided to disobey orders and not let off a bomb. Daniel Jackson, a stereotypical academic with allergies and the good ol' Crackpot Movie Science Theory (TM), is actually the main character, with Jack taking a slightly secondary role. The people of the alien planet get to have their own revolution, with minimal bloodshed and without a bunch of US military dudes leading the charge. And the only reason why any of this happened is because the 80-year-old daughter of a 1920s Egyptologist became so obsessed with an old Egyptian artefact that she spent her whole life researching it until people finally got to travel to other planets. Which to me is a far more compelling origin story than any amount of daddy issues, dead wives, or misunderstood loner antiheroes. Well done, Stargate. Well done, Roland Emmerich. Well done, everyone who managed to read all the way to the end of this stupidly long post. And if you thought I'd be writing about costume design: sorry. Come back in a couple of days.


  1. I really need to dig out that novelisation.

  2. I admit it, I had a mini-heart attack when I saw you were talking about Stargate. It and the TV shows that followed are still some of my favorite pieces of media ever.

    Speaking of, though, did you hear that Rolland Emmerich is lobbying MGM to let him reboot the series into a trilogy? Because that's a thing. A thing that was announced five days ago. Seriously.

  3. The other good thing about Stargate is that after you have seen it, you can easily remember it, unlike some of the latest blockbusters filled to capacity with everything plonked right in front of you. Stargate left me feeling good about myself and about life in general and it still does whenever I rewatch it. Good article, well done.

  4. I don't think it's nostalgia bias; I think that Stargate is just a genuinely good, if also kind of silly, movie. But I say that as someone who really likes silliness, sometimes.

    I haven't watched the movie in years. I saw it in the theater and loved it (and didn't have the excuse of being 14; hell, I was working for an archaeological dig at the time). I sort of wished there would be a sequel, but somehow didn't pick up on SG-1 until several years into its run. When I finally saw it, I fell for it, really hard. It was My Fandom for several more years. And sometime towards the end of SG-1's run (I never warmed to SGA), I rewatched the original movie.

    What surprised me THEN was that even without the trappings and elaborations of the tv show, it still felt like it held up; and that Kurt Russell's Jack wasn't nearly as boring and humorless as the common joke of the fandom (and the tv show) made him out to be. When I first saw the movie, I was all about Daniel. I liked the show's Jack even better. But I surprised myself with how much Russell's Jack affected me, and how much of a spark is actually in there. (But, "Kurt Russell as underrated actor" is a discussion for another time.)

    This is why I wasn't really upset or anything to hear the latest rumors that Emmerich wants to reboot his movie as a trilogy that has nothing to do with the tv series. I do wish he gave the tv series(es) more respect -- I think it's possible to do that, and to still say you'd like to reboot the movie verse away from the baggage that the shows accumulated. If it happens, I'm okay with it, because the shows' days are over. I can admit that, as a mega-fan. They had their day, and there is really no way to recapture a former peak. (There's only going back to rewatch them AT their peak, which is not a bad thing to be left with.)

    Yet, I kind of wonder -- especially now, after reading this thoughtful essay -- whether Emmerich CAN reboot his movie, while keeping it as smart and interesting as it was. Or whether a rebooted Stargate would be infected by the latest Hollywood trends. What you've done here is really make me think about the original movie as a product of a moment in time, which is a way I haven't thought about it so much. But... yeah.

  5. This review makes me so happy! Stargate was one of my favorite movies when I was younger and it's nice to look at it now that I'm older and more discerning and see that it's still a good movie. Plus, I always love reading your reviews, they're so well written! Thanks for reviewing this one! :)

  6. I love articles like this - really enjoyed your series on Avengers and XMen too. Keep up the good work!

  7. Good analysis. I've always found this film surprisingly satisfying, and think you've worked out why. Really tempted to go watch it again now - it's been years.

  8. You dont mention that other significant difference between Stargate and pretty nearly any film you might think of in any genre: the science team back on earth has a good mix of men and women of all 'grades' of physical beauty. There is no romance nonsense going on there and they get the job done. Positive images of women in science and engineering roles who are not also required to have a ditzy side and wear sexed up clothing, are rarer than hens teeth.

  9. I've heard of this movie but I have never watched it. Something that this article makes me want to rectify.

  10. This. I love Stargate and I love the romance in Stargate. Sha'uri gets to be a person and not just a piece of ass.

  11. I remember loving this film when I first saw it oh so long ago. I'm glad to hear it holds up so well. Thank to this, I'm going to give it another viewing.

  12. Terrific analysis! Stargate has long been one of my favorite movies. I've watched it countless times and always found it emotionally and intellectually satisfying. Now I know why!

  13. I am curious to know what you think about the tv show sequel/adaption

  14. Good job! I'm french, sorry for this futur bull-grammar-shit.
    I've just watching Stargate, and what a surprise! In my mind, it was a standard pitch movie in the 90's with old special effects, but no! I can't make a better critic than you: it's my opinion ; your vision on newer blockbusters too. Thanks for this moment! Futur trilogy can be good.
    PS: Just one thing: Mili Avital (Sha'uri) is absolutely beautiful, She exercised an enchantement on me.

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