The small-minded 'StarGate' goes nowhere fast

October 29, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"StarGate" is a loony-tune beamed down from the Planet of the Bad Movies. But what's so dispiriting about it isn't its goofiness, but its smallness. However awful "Dune" was, it offered immense subversive pleasure in the scale, the density, the depth of its folly!

Folly writ small, alas, is only stupidity; and inside "StarGate" there's a small, stupid movie struggling to get out. For one thing, when we have short-circuited the universe and landed on its other side, on some distant planet in a distant solar system, we find ourselves in a pretty tiny pea-patch. According to "StarGate," here's the far side of the universe: One measly pyramid, one measly starship that uses the pyramid as a docking station, one measly quartz mine and one measly slave city, all about 300 yards apart. Columbia, Md., is a bigger universe than this joint!

Getting there is most of the fun. The movie takes off from a crackpot theory of Egyptology -- that aliens built the Pyramids at Giza. As the movie has it, only the shaggy, shuffling, comically mumbling Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) sees this reality, much to the humor of his stiffer colleagues. However, the Air Force knows better and Spader is enlisted in a secret project that means to exploit the discovery of a strange, sophisticated circular device, of no known metal and inscribed with no known language, that was found back in 1928.

This 20-foot O-ring, of course, is the StarGate of the title -- kind of like a lens by which, when it is properly adjusted, one may step through into another world. It falls to Spader to do so; then it falls to tough-guy Col. Jack O'Neal (Kurt Russell) to lead an Air Force commando team through, to see what there is to see.

The early going in the film is quite provocative, if you enjoy screwball mythology; for a bit, it appeared the movie was veering strangely toward being original. Once there, however, we all learn that there's no there there. Without giving away the justifying theory of the place, let me point out that it's run by an evil chap who calls himself Ra (as in Egyptian mythology) for whom the desert planet is a complete fiefdom, with a slave population and a very small court of androgynous children. The total population of the world appears to be about 500; there's no sense of wider culture, of different civilization, of being anywhere interesting.

Ra is played -- sort of -- by Jaye Davidson of "The Crying Game," in his second film after that sensational debut. Needless to say, there's no scene comparable to the one where Stephen Rea discovered the truth about him in "The Crying Game." In fact, he seems somewhat vaporous and diaphanous the whole time. In fact, I say he plays Ra "sort of" because Davidson poses rather than acts; his voice is amplified electronic gibberish. He could be on a runway, rather than in a movie.

By its last reel, "StarGate" has become infernally childish, a kind of imitation "Lawrence of Arabia," with lantern-jawed, crew-cut Russell leading a revolt in the desert against the lord and master of the planet. The special effects turn out to be not very special and not very effective, and the movie never achieves the lunatic grandeur of the truly demented. "StarGate" is strictly for the peanut gallery.



Starring Kurt Russell and James Spader

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Released by MGM

Rated PG-13


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