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.
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.
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."
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.