(Dir. Roland Emmerich, USA/France, 1994)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

Egypt, 1928: an archaeological team discovers a stone ring buried in the sands of the Giza plateau. America, 1994: Dr Daniel Jackson, James Spader's maverick linguist, is hired by the military to decipher the symbols on the ring and its companion cartouche. After discovering that the first symbol represents the constellation Orion, Jackson quickly deciphers the rest and opens a star-gate which transports him, the dour Colonel Jack O'Neill and some soldiers (little less wooden than the mannequins used in many of the film's crowd scenes) to the other side of the "known universe". Here the explorers encounter a ludicrously naïve vision of an ancient Egyptian human society which has not developed at all since it was transported here by an alien overlord 4000 years earlier. Posing as the Egyptian god, Ra, the alien takes a dislike to the new arrivals, who have incited rebellion in the ancient humans. The result is illogical mayhem and the inevitable destruction of the alien overlord, along with his pyramid spaceship. In a reflection of The Time Machine (1960), Jackson decides to stay in this naïve parallel world with his new-found love, Sha'uri (Mili Avital).

In his Directory of Discarded Ideas, John Grant takes a look at the rich tradition of 'alien deities', from the Saturn-dwelling Aetherian Cosmic Masters (with their emissaries who apparently included Jesus Christ and Guatama Buddha) to W. R. Drake's proposal that Wagner's Twilight of the Gods charted an actual retreat by alien beings. Central to many 'theories' is the notion of the 'ancient astronauts', beings who kick-started human civilization (a concept used for Kubrick's 2001 [1968]), or taught the Mayans to fly, or built the Egyptian pyramids. Updating this notion of associations between the stars and the ancient Egyptians is Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert's fascinating 1994 book The Orion Mystery. Taking a more scientific line, the book links the orientation and structure of the great pyramids at Giza with the stars - centering, like Dr Jackson, around the constellation of Orion.

Building on many such references, Stargate attempts to link new and old, opening with an homage to the Indiana Jones 'archaeology-is-sexy' ethos of the 1980s; this same feel was almost captured by The Mummy (1999) and then irredeemably lost by The Mummy Returns (2001). In many ways Stargate is successful. Much of its $55million budget is visible on the screen, as laser blasts and special effects contend with the seductive beauty of art-deco ancient Egyptian designs. The theme is carried on to Ra, played by Jaye Davison with an effective blend of innocent menace and homo-erotic luxuriance, which led to Leonard Maltin's description of "a sort of fey Ming the Merciless". Despite its impressive production values, however, Stargate can boast very little character development and huge holes in its creaky plot, not least the fact that Jackson learns fluent ancient Egyptian remarkably quickly - despite having inevitable problems with the vowels early on. As no one really knows how the language was spoken, the dialect was invented for the film. Shades here of Star Wars (1977), in which sound recordist Ben Burtt used variations of Quechan, Zulu and Swahili for his interpretations of alien languages. Star Wars fans will, of course, also recognise Stargate's sand dunes as those of Yuma Arizona - the location for the destruction of Jabba the Hutt's sail barge in Return of the Jedi (1983).

France, USA; Le Studio Canal+, Centropolis, Carolco; 121 minutes; UK cert. PG
Producers: Dean Devlin, Oliver Eberle, Joel B. Michalels; Writers: Roland Emmerich & Dean Devlin; Cinematographer: Karl Walter Lindenlaub; Editors: Derek Brechin & Michael J. Duthie; Music: David Arnold; Design: Holger Gross; Art Direction: Frank Bollinger & Peter Murton.
Cast. Colonel Jonathan 'Jack' O'Neill; Dr Daniel Jackson: James Spader; Dr Catherine Langford: Viveca Lindfors; Skaara: Alexis Cruz; Ra: Jaye Davidson; Sha'uri: Mili Avital.

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