Friday, March 14, 2014


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

I've never understood the huge appeal of STARGATE, either the original film version or the various teleseries incarnations.  I make one minor exception: the animated series STARGATE:INFINITY-- perhaps the only iteration *without* a significant fan-following. The cartoon series, while nothing special, outdid the original film in featuring characters who were reasonably consistent.

I imagine that the principal appeal of the Devlin-Emmerich film-- the team's second success after their collaboration on UNIVERSAL SOLDIER-- was the "ancient astronauts" theme, combined with some of the same military boosterism seen in SOLDIER. I noted in my review of the earlier film that its script "papered over any political undercurrents," and this is doubly so of STARGATE.

The tone of the opening scenes, though, sell the "ancient astronauts" theme in monolithic tones that recall Richard Donner's approach to SUPERMAN, though without the psychological symbolism or the adroit comedy relief.  Three establishing scenes take the viewer, in swift succession, from the founding of Egyptian civilization in 8,000 BC by an extradimensional alien, the location of the Stargate artifact in the 1920s by modern humans, and the activation of the gate in the 1990s by an American military complex.

Clearly the script, written by both men and directed by Emmerich, intends to over-awe the audience with its evocation of the monuments of the past, as well as continually repeating its blaring David Arnold score over and over throughout the narrative.  But though the character of linguistics expert Daniel Jackson is responsible for figuring out the means to open the gate, Jackson is never more than a nerdy everyman; his passion for Egypt and its language is portrayed as a given, not rooted in a character. The film's other main character is hardline air force colonel Jack O'Neil, but the audience similarly knows nothing about his character or his devotion to the military.  He receives one overly-obvious "tragic" trope: O'Neil's young son accidentally killed himself by playing with a loaded gun, possibly one owned by his father.  This kindles a suicidal urge in O'Neil.  His assignment to journey through the activated Stargate fortuitously gives him a chance to choose between dying on his sword or rejoining the legion of the living.  That O'Neil ends up forming a paternal bond with a young boy on an alien world should signal which option he finally selects.

It's never made clear why the American air force wants O'Neil, Jackson and a reconnaissance team to pass through the Stargate.  No one voices anything similar to STAR TREK's high-minded injunctions about "boldly going" out to explore the unknown, nor does anyone claim that there's any specific goal the military wishes to obtain through exploration, as we see in 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.  A Marxist would assume that the authorities are out to expand their hierarchy into new territories, though this isn't entirely borne out.  Unknown to Jackson and O'Neil's fellow soldiers, O'Neil carries a bomb with him in case the team learns that the other world holds danger for his world, he's supposed to send the rest of his team back to Earth and destroy the gate-- and himself-- to stave off alien invasion. It's not every day one comes across a SF-expedition characterized by both expansionism and conservative xenophobia!

O'Neil's team encounters first humanoid natives, who turn out to be descendants of Earth-people.  The entity responsible for their enslavement on the alien world is an alien being worshipped under the name of Egypt's sun-god, Ra.  In the film's most interesting development of the standard "alien astronaut" scenario-- one executed many times in STAR TREK and DOCTOR WHO, as well as perhaps hundreds of SF-pulps-- the alien no longer occupies his original form, but inhabits the body of a mortal who sought Ra out back in dynastic times.  This may be a displaced science-fiction version of the trope of the devil-worshipper who invokes the devil to join with his own flesh.  But like Jackson and O'Neil, neither the alien nor the person he inhabits is more than a visual trope.  Since Ra is played by the androgynous-looking actor Jaye Davidson, who made his cinematic fame two years previous in 1992's THE CRYING GAME, Devlin and Emmerich may have been seeking to subtly stigmatize this visual androgyny to make Ra seem suitably "alien."

If the film's main appeal is its monolithic models, its second greatest asset are the action-sequences, though in comparison with the cutting-edge FX of STAR WARS they're merely adequate. But then the focus of STARGATE is never adventurous in nature, but is rather dramatic.  The narrative emphasizes the "winning of hearts and minds" as O'Neil and his cohorts eventually persuade Ra's slave-population to rebel against the tyranny of its pseudo-Egyptian ruler.  In America at least, this aspect may have validated the film for viewers, given that Judeo-Christian religion has repeatedly stressed the mythic appeal of "evil Egyptian tyrants" vs. "nobly suffering Jewish slaves."  This may be an even better explanation of the film's popularity, given that of its two major characters one is a zero and the other is a dick.

Because I see no heroic dimensions to either O'Neil and Jackson, who are caught up in an alien rebellion largely to preserve their own interests, I consider them to be demiheroes, in contrast to comparable heroes like Captain Kirk and the Doctor.

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