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Stargate: Excavating a Good Movie from the Sands of Cliché

Battlestar Galactica, one of the best sci-fi shows ever made, first came into being as a cheesy Star Wars rip-off back in the 1970s. Unlike its 21st century remake, the original show was intentionally campy. There were moments of gravitas, sure, but there was also a robot dog named Muffit. Still, there was an underlying mythology to the show that I’ve loved all my life–the idea that these people out in space were a lost tribe from ancient Earth. You could see it in their Egyptian-style helmets, in the pyramids that appeared on the planet Kobol, in the hieroglyphics.

I was hooked. I’ve been hooked all my life. I’m a sucker for anything involving Ancient Egypt. I also like aliens, especially of the pop culture variety. So a story that marries the two is like catnip for me. And this is why I LOVED 1994’s Stargate… or at least why I wanted to. It’s a gorgeous, promising movie that just doesn’t stick the landing.

In 1994, the film industry hadn’t yet hardened into a model where the only big-budget movies made were part of an established franchise or a remake of an established franchise. There was room, in the ’90s, for original science fiction epics. One of the most famous of these was Independence Day, written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, and directed by Emmerich. This is not that movie. This is the movie they made first.

One could argue that Independence Day was a more mature version of Stargate, that Stargate was where the partners cut their teeth and perfected their craft before making Independence Day. One could also argue that calling Stargate “original science fiction” would be stretching the truth. The film is more accurately described as a compilation of many other movies and ideas sewn together into a narrative that has a lot of promise but just can’t break out of its stereotypes to be something new.

It’s not that Stargate is bad–it’s not! It’s got sexy, androgynous Egyptian gods and ancient aliens and a scruffy James Spader and a buff Kurt Russell, all wrapped up in a package that includes terrific (for the time) special effects and kickass costuming. And you can enjoy it greatly as long as you’re willing to play the game of “Which movie is this part cribbed from?” mixed with a big helping of “Spot the Cliché!”

Let’s try it with Act One:

The film shamelessly steals from Spielberg by opening with the excavation scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. I mean, it’s not really, but…it is. It looks like Raiders. It sounds like Raiders. It has the same lighting, the same feel, and basically even the same safari-chic earth tone suits on the head archeologists.

This massive dig is happening in 1928, and we see some interesting “cover stones” in the ground, a gold pendant necklace that catches the eye of the archeologist’s young daughter, and a lot of picturesque Egyptians in sandy linen outfits, all busily employed in excavating what can only be a city the size of Paris. (It should be noted that the little girl, Catherine Langford, picks up a pendant engraved with the Eye of Ra that’s been dug from the sands of Egypt, is called away by her dad, and then POCKETS THIS PRICELESS TREASURE and scampers off to see the biggest discovery of the dig. No one in the film ever mentions the enormity of this theft, but I feel like I should, in the name of justice.) Emmerich then lifts us up and over the bustle to the centerpiece of the excavation: a giant metal circle, covered with hieroglyphs, which is being pulled by many ropes up into a standing position. Why anyone would ever think such a thing should be vertical when it would obviously either immediately fall on its side or simply roll away, crushing everything in its path like the ship in Prometheus, I do not know. But it looks fabulous. The workers, in their head wraps, arranged in lines and pulling on ropes to do the heavy lifting, instantly evoke images of Egyptian slaves in movies like The Ten Commandments. Guess which is which:

Then it’s modern day (1994). Dr. Daniel Jackson, a classic absentminded professor played by James Spader before he embraced his inherent creepiness, is giving a speech about the pyramids to a packed room. This scene is a prime example of the oft-used “leaving audience” trope. Daniel, a linguistics expert, says the cartouche of Khufu, considered to be the pharaoh who built the Great Pyramid, was a fraud. This is apparently so offensive that the entire audience walks out, some of them snickering that Jackson must believe the pyramid was built by aliens (foreshadowing!). Poor, cute Daniel Jackson is left wondering if everyone went to lunch or something. He never noticed the elderly Catherine Langford, wearing her stolen treasure, standing off to the side. That makes sense, because she also left after listening to about thirty seconds of his speech. It’s a powerful trope!

Those seconds made an impression, though, because she’s waiting outside in a car to offer him a mysterious job translating Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. This job offer comes with plane tickets in an envelope, which never happens to me. Also, remember plane tickets? And how if you lost them, physically lost them, you were up shit’s creek? Anyway, we learn that Daniel was a foster kid, that he’s been evicted, and that his grant money is gone. Do I even have to mention that it’s raining in this scene? It is, and he has no umbrella. This all means he’s hit rock bottom and might as well go off on an adventure now.

Next we meet Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell, with longish blond surfer hair), who’s at home sitting in his son’s bedroom, refusing to speak even to the two Air Force officers here to tell him he’s been reactivated. Jack is the hero who’s lost his mojo. On their way out, the airmen drop the exposition that his kid accidentally shot and killed himself. Presumably the gun was Jack’s. It’s a startlingly horrible backstory for such a stereotypical character archetype.

Once you’ve met these two very different male stereotypes, you know there’s only one thing that can happen: buddy movie.

Daniel arrives at a military base retrofitted from a nuclear missile silo, where he meets Richard Kind in a Cosby sweater. (Kind is always Kind, so I can’t even remember his character’s name. He’s almost a cliché of himself.) Catherine Langford is there, too–I don’t know why they didn’t fly together. They look at the cover stones, and Kind exposits that most of the hieroglyphs are normal, but there are some they’ve never seen. Daniel immediately begins correcting Kind’s translations, which is how we know he’s brilliant. What Kind had translated as “door to heaven” Daniel corrects to “Stargate,” and we have our title.

Jack shows up in a military haircut, so we know he’s back on duty. He informs Catherine he’s here in case she “succeeds.” At what? That’s classified. Not to worry, because Daniel’s on the job! Richard Kind has been trying to decipher the hieroglyphics for two years, but it only takes Daniel one scene to solve the mystery–they’re symbols depicting constellations! The minute he makes his discovery, the military brass arrives.

Daniel catches them all up: the hieroglyphs are star signs, seven of them. They form an address–to travel through three dimensions, you need a sign for each of the six sides of a cube, and the seventh sign is for the origin point. Don’t ask me how he got from hieroglyphics to astrology to space travel, just go with it. Richard Kind says he must be wrong, because the seventh hieroglyph doesn’t appear on the device.

What’s that? A device? Yup, they’ve been hiding it from Daniel this whole time (approximately 4 minutes), but now they take him to a hangar with the Stargate from the opening scene, all hooked up to computers and sensors. They know it’s a device, they know it spins like a rotary phone and locks itself into place at each star sign…and honestly, they seem to know it will open a wormhole. I don’t really get why they needed Daniel, but I guess linguistics is just a powerful discipline.

Side note: You can tell this is a movie from the ’90s because almost everybody smokes. In a bunker. Underground. Jack is practically a chain smoker, which means he’s a tough guy. Daniel is one of the few who never light up at all, which means he’s either an innocent or a dweeb. (He’s both!) Smoking used to be an efficient shorthand for characterization, but that writers’ trick is lost to us now.

It takes Daniel five seconds to find the missing hieroglyph on the Stargate, and Richard Kind should be fired for wasting two years of the military’s time. The computers know what to do, springing into action as soon as the new sign is input. Everything shakes, and a wormhole opens in the gate. It’s pretty! And it does not suck the entire Earth into itself, so it’s not that kind of wormhole.

When a probe is put into the gate, the Air Force tech is literally able to follow it on a direct line through space to the other side of the galaxy, which…why aren’t we using this kind of technology to go to Mars? Their grasp of fictional interstellar travel is frankly hilarious, but this is a well-worn trope–viewers don’t question American military technology. We simply assume they’ve got knowledge and capability none of us know about.

The probe shows them a perfect picture of another Stargate on the other side, along with the symbols on that gate. Handy! The probe also exposits that there is a livable atmosphere. They can’t send a manned mission through, though, because the symbols on that gate are different and they won’t be able to get back if they can’t translate those glyphs. If only they had a linguist willing to go. Billions of dollars’ worth of aerospace research and proof of extraterrestrial life, and the United States Air Force is going to shut it all down for lack of an Egyptologist.

Surprising no one who’s ever seen a movie before, Daniel decides to go. Before he leaves, Catherine gives him a good luck charm: the priceless artifact she stole from Egypt, the gold Eye of Ra pendant. He can bring it back to her, she says, without ever considering that maybe she should give it back to the country she took it from.

With the Stargate all fired up, Jack walks right through like the badass he is, while the other guys on the team–including a pre-3rd Rock from the Sun French Stewart–approach it with more trepidation. The last one up, Daniel stops to really look at it, to stick his hand in and pull it back, and to generally offer us a Spielbergian “childlike sense of wonder.” The music helps out by channeling E.T. big time.

The Stargate effects were mindblowing in 1994, and they’re still perfectly adequate. The wormhole itself recalls James Cameron’s liquid metal effect from Terminator 2, and it works well for the most part. There’s a subspace tunnel and a lot of lights, and all of this is very familiar now from years of Star Trek and Thor and a million other wormhole-heavy properties, though at the time it was more reminiscent of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Whoa! That’s a lot of clichés and stereotypes packed in among all the familiar movie tropes and elements borrowed from other films! Not to worry, though, Stargate has a lot more where that came from.

Here’s a sampling:

  • A desert planet like Tatooine
  • Three moons
  • A hero (Daniel) adopting the Luke Skywalker aesthetic
  • A pyramid and Egyptian obelisks on another planet
  • A hero (Jack) on a secret mission
  • A hero (Daniel) whose powers change with the needs of the plot
  • A secret bomb. Chekhov’s bomb, if you will
  • Soldiers being macho
  • An alien beast that is basically just a horse
  • Chocolate as a literally universal treat
  • A hero (Daniel) is awoken by a disgusting animal licking his face
  • A slave mining compound like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Indigenous people worshipping a stranger/a hero (Daniel) mistaken for a god
  • A tricorder-type device like on Star Trek
  • A rare mineral used in villain technology
  • The bereaved father (Jack) taking a teen boy under his wing
  • The local chief giving his daughter as a gift
  • A marriage the hero (Daniel) doesn’t realize is a marriage
  • The heroes joining the locals in a feast where the food is weird
  • The foreign food “tastes like chicken”
  • The entire backstory is written on a wall in a secret cave
  • The heroes communicate with the locals by using charades
  • An alien beast that is basically just a dog
  • Women only exist to serve men and be beautiful
  • Teen boys run in a pack like the Lost Boys from Peter Pan

The main plotline involves Daniel and Jack meeting a group of enslaved people living on a planet called Abydos. (As an Egypt nerd, I admit to being happy that Devlin and Emmerich named this planet after the actual name of an ancient city.) Running parallel to this first-contact type of story is the sci-fi action movie. This part features soldiers trying–and failing–to connect over their radios; a sandstorm; an unseen enemy picking the good guys off one by one; laser weapons; and an enormous spaceship.

This whole section is something new. A massive black spaceship looms over the pyramid, dwarfing it. In the darkness, lightning shooting from its hull, the ship lands atop the pyramid. It’s a strikingly cool image, and it would become even cooler in Independence Day, when the ships got bigger and the famous places they eclipsed were things like the White House. (There have been hints through the years that Devlin and Emmerich revised their plan for a Stargate sequel into Independence Day, and I believe it.) Later, we see that this spaceship itself is shaped like a pyramid, and we understand that all pyramids, here and on Earth, were simply landing pads. I wish there were more ideas like this in Stargate, because it’s genuinely interesting.

All the Egyptian elements are, in fact. The guards who attack our soldiers are enormous figures with the heads of the Egyptian gods Anubis and Horus. (The latter is played by a young Djimon Hounsou, billed here merely as “Djimon.”) The interior of the pyramid ship is filled with Egyptian iconography done in high-tech metal instead of the stone we’re used to. We see a sarcophagus opening on its own, lighting up as it activates, metal sliding over metal just as it does on the Stargate. Inside is another sarcophagus. It opens and a hand emerges, delicate and expressive, with several cruel-looking finger coverings over the tips, and a chill runs up our spine. This is the movie I wanted to see! Ancient Egyptians on a spaceship! Sleek, minimalist design and purple lighting! A jackal-headed guy with a staff that also shoots laser beams!

The backstory is a retcon of Egyptian mythology: Ra, an ancient alien from a dying species, comes to Earth looking for a new body. Finds a young boy and possesses his body like a parasite. Then he appoints himself ruler (of Ancient Egypt) and uses a Stargate to bring thousands of Egyptians here to the desert planet to mine the mineral used in all his tech. On Earth, the workers rebel and bury the Stargate to keep him from coming back. So he outlaws reading and writing on Abydos, to keep the people from knowing the truth.

We meet Ra in an Egyptian throne room at the tip of the pyramid ship. The sides retract, revealing long vertical window slits tastefully draped with purple sheers. Really, the design of this ship is fantastic.

Ra arrives with a retinue of mostly naked tweens, and I appreciate the accuracy of their Ancient Egyptian hairstyles. The living god has found Jack’s bomb, which is a nuclear bomb, because of course the Air Force sent a nuclear bomb to a habitable planet to destroy it, why wouldn’t they? The Anubis guards retract their masks, showing that they’re actually humans. Ra does the same, showing that he’s Jaye Davidson, of The Crying Game fame. The music throbs with orchestral Jaws-like intensity. The Anubis soldiers sneer throughout with cinematic arrogance. The loincloths and wide, jeweled collars on Ra and the kids are sumptuous and gorgeous. I love everything about this part of the movie.

Alas, no matter how interesting the on-ship imagery is, we’re still not done with the clichés. Let’s get back to it:

    • Jack punches Anubis in the face, just as Will Smith would later punch an alien in Independence Day (not really a trope, just a fun calling card from Devlin and Emmerich)
    • A hero (Daniel) is killed
    • A hero (Daniel) is brought back to life
    • The resurrected hero saves everyone like a good messiah always does
    • The villain uses a cadre of kids to protect himself from gunfire
    • Fighter jets! No clue why this god would need them, but where there is a spaceship, there must be fighters. It’s a cinematic sci-fi rule
    • The good guys’ weapon is used against them
    • The villain tells the hero his whole dastardly plan
    • The villain threatens to kill other people in order to keep the hero in line
    • The villain’s plan involves handing a weapon to the hero
    • An entire rebellion happens without any of the rebels discussing a plan
    • Unarmed indigenous people become sharpshooters overnight
    • A vital piece of information is discovered at the very last minute
    • The countdown to detonation allows for half an hour of action to happen in “seven minutes”
    • A surprise army appears to save the day
    • A woman is killed to spur a man to act
    • Stereotypical Bad Guy line #53: “I am no longer amused.”
    • Stereotypical Good Guy line #21: “Give my regards to King Tut, asshole!”
    • Teen hero’s best friend is killed
    • Surprise decapitation
    • Deus ex machina
    • The bomb goes off
    • The White Savior decides to stay with the primitive people he’s come to love

And there you have it. That’s your starter list of tropes and stereotypes, but you should feel free to add your own as you notice them, because there are definitely more. A note of caution, though: You should absolutely watch Stargate. But DO NOT make “Spot the Cliché!” a drinking game, because you will be passed out and drooling before you ever even get to see the three moons of Abydos.

This movie is fun to watch for itself. It’s fun to watch to make fun of. It’s just fun! But, and I cannot stress this enough, it is not as good as the concept behind it. And I know that for a fact, because some years later, the television show Stargate SG-1 appeared, based on this movie and starring MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson, as Jack. It’s a blast, Star Trek-meets-Battlestar Galactica-meets-MacGyver, with a huge dose of comparative mythology as a backdrop. It was on for ten seasons and never ran out of material. The success of that show–and its multiple spin-offs–is all the proof you need. Stargate was always a terrific idea. It just needed to be itself.


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Written By

Laura J. Burns writes books, writes for TV, and sometimes writes TV based on books and books based on TV. She's the managing editor of The Gist.

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