(Roland Emmerich, USA/France, 1994)


There were earnest conferences all over the globe during the ‘90s on the fate of storytelling in a multimedia age – an age in which major, mainstream movies will more and more be made with computerised, digital technology.


If anything is at stake in this revolution, it is the belief – fervently held and nurtured by most movie moguls – that films must tell mythic stories replete with heroes, quests, personal growth and collective triumph.


Of course, any kid who plays video games knows that heroes and the like have hardly disappeared from the latest, interactive forms of ‘fast fiction’. Such mythic elements remain, but they have been reduced to mere blips in a program, no more important than the colours, special effects or machine-gun blasts. Some connoisseurs of popular culture might argue that, no matter the technology, this has always been the case in supposedly vulgar genres like fantasy, horror and SF.


The marvellously entertaining Stargate is perfect fuel for this argument. It has two heroes, both of whom lack fulfilment – a scientist (James Spader) whose radical theories about the origins of human history have made him a social outcast, and a military man (Kurt Russell) who grieves over the accidental death of his son. When the passage to another world opens, courtesy of a stargate concealed since ancient Egyptian times, these men are able to venture on their much-needed mythic quest.


Yet, beyond these most basic and functional marks of characterisation, the film cares not a fig for life or its meaning. This is truly a video game disguised as a movie, an extraordinary orchestration by director Roland Emmerich (Universal Soldier, 1992) of a barrage of flickering lights, bombastic music cues and gesticulating figures. It is a funny, exciting movie which requires very little humanity in order to work effectively.


Stargate is one of many modern movies which is self-consciously mythic, but in a free-for-all, crazy way. It borrows myths from everywhere at once. Among the ingredients are a "chariots of the gods" premise (aliens built the pyramids) and a large dose of Orientalist fantasy (Spader gets an exotic, Egyptian girlfriend). There are sundry ideological pellets in the brew, too: the cosmic villain (Jaye Davidson from The Crying Game [1992]) is extremely effeminate, while Russell's liberation of an oppressed alien race is a lesson in macho militarism.


But such "messages" are also just blips in the film's circuitry. There is much to enjoy here: the intricate objects whose parts separate, hover and click back into place; the special-effects plunge through deep space; and Spader, usually typecast as a brooding or disturbed soul, who is allowed to be quite charming and funny for a change.


MORE Emmerich: Godzilla, Independence Day

© Adrian Martin March 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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