“The script was just awful, and that sort of intrigued me,” James Spader told Entertainment Weekly in 1994 as he was promoting his new film. He goes on to say that it's not the type of movie he would ever personally see and that he mainly signed on for the adventure of filming in the Arizona desert. Little did Spader know he'd also signed on to launch a major sci-fi franchise.
Still, these are not the things that you want the star of your new movie to say on promotional tours, but Spader had a point. Roland Emmerich (who also directed) and Dean Devlin’s script for Stargate is awful, riddled with cliches of nerdy scientists and white saviors. It’s a film that shows all the ridiculous excess of the ‘90s blockbuster cinema, yet offered ideas promising enough to spawn over fifteen years and 300 episodes of content.
But before diving into the show, there's still a chance to experience the original Stargate on Hulu before it leaves on September 30.
Stargate is, in one sense, about the stargate. Linguist Daniel Jackson (Spader) is brought in on a secret military discovery: an ancient Egyptian structure of some sort that seems to describe a traveler. After making a fool of a government scientist played by Richard Kind (who would later go on to play a completely different role in the TV show Stargate: Atlantis), Jackson is able to discover that the structure is an Einstein-Rosen bridge, capable of transporting someone to anywhere in the universe.
This is a great premise. Travel is one of the cornerstones of societal exchange, and sudden travel to a distant part of the universe offers mystery, promise, and the challenge of the complete unknown. It’s possible this is an idea best suited for a TV show, which can explore different regions and how this new form of travel affects people.
It’s what worked for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Stargate: SG-1, which could explore the rise and fall of races like the Goa'uld and Orio. The Richard Kind episode of Stargate: Atlantis is able to introduce a wacky character named Lucious Lavrin and can find out what makes him tick.
Stargate the movie offers none of these charms. Instead, Jackson is paired with a fairly glum Kurt Russell, a military commander with a buzzcut right out of Street Fighter. Just about the only thing we learn about Russell’s Jack O’Neil is that his son accidentally killed himself, and that’s a wealth of information compared to what the audience learns about his mostly anonymous soldiers.
A portal to the other side of the universe is only as useful as what one finds on the other side. What the soldiers and Jackon find is a pyramid, just like the one in Egypt, below three moons. This shot looks very cool. Jackson is pleased because this confirms his theory that the ancient Egyptians weren’t solely responsible for building the ancient structures. They also find humans, who they learn have been forced there by aliens.
Here, Stargate stumbles upon another fascinating idea: what if ancient Egyptian society, incredibly advanced for its time, was allowed to build and flourish on its own, uninterrupted by the Roman Empire, climate change, famine, or any of the other factors that led to the downfall of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. Having been on the cutting edge of technological innovation at the time, where would it go in the future?
But Stargate isn't really interested in this thought experiment. The pyramids were built by evil aliens, and the aliens control everything and ban writing and keep everyone oppressed. That is, of course, until the U.S military shows up. Only then can the revolution begin.
Cool special effects are not enough to keep Stargate interesting for today’s audience, although it was a huge hit in 1994. But the grittiness of the movie gave way to the general goofiness of the TV series, which turned out to be a much better use of the concept.
Stargate is the beginning of a story showing how a movie concept can be twisted every way until it finds a setting that works.
Stargate is streaming on Hulu until September 30.