Since 1994, the Stargate universe has blossomed into something rivaling the Star Trek behemoth, cranking out extensions like Atlantis, SG-1, and the newly-found Stargate: Universe to generally high fanfare. It's amazing to think that it all started with Roland Emmerich's slice of other-worthly delight, a box office smash that rides right along the surface with hints of Egyptian culture, beat-a-minute action, and simple time-travel concepts. Stargate can't be taken seriously, yet it's difficult to think of a short list of '90s entries in the genre that wouldn't include this fun and outlandish sci-fi romp.
The concept of Egyptian culture believing in other-worldly beings isn't a foreign one, as they've cropped up in theories and writing for many years due to their presence in hieroglyphs. Egyptologist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) has taken this concept and researched it to a point of hypothesis, structuring a theory that proves aliens built the Great Pyramids instead of the Fourth Dynasty Egyptian citizens. Though he's laughed out of a lecture about that very topic, researcher Catherine Langford (one of Viveca Lindfors' final performances) knows his theories to be true -- and she hires him to decipher markings on a device discovered roughly seventy years prior by her father in Giza.
Little did Daniel know that it's all under military control, now under the head of Colonel Jack O'Neill (Kurt Russell) in case he "succeeds". His success, occurring in a belief-suspending two weeks, happens to be the discovery of a seventh and final symbol of the item mentioned on the coverstone -- the
Door to Heaven Stargate. Instead of deciphering a mere hieroglyph, he's actually been trying to find the missing link that would activate the device and, quintessentially, open up a doorway to another galaxy. It's at this point when Roland Emmerich's picture kicks it into high gear, with Daniel and company hopping through the gateway to an atmospherically-similar location on the far, far outstretches of the known universe.
It ratchets up the excitement once Daniel sticks his face through the device on Earth and never looks back, sending us through an immediate blitz for the crew to find a way home once they've been spit out on the other side. They tumble towards a faraway civilization from their landing site, getting us tempered to caricature-like Army soldiers pushing and picking on Daniel as he tries to find a way home from their jump. Almost everything you need to know about the characters can be grasped within two or three quick scenes; James Spader's Daniel is an awkward romance-less scientist, a sneezing, scrawny "dweeb" who packs books upon books for an adventure, while Russel's Colonel O'Neill embodies a rough-and-tumble, flat-topped antithesis to Snake Plissken in Escape from New York -- though he's got a dark streak under his belt due to a family accident that claimed his son's life. It's in the cards for us to immediately get the shallow construction of Stargate's characters, since they'll develop into little more than amiable heroes as the film rolls on.
Stargate's adorned with Egyptian influences from sand to sky, especially once they reach their destination and try to communicate with "locals", though it's not handled to a degree that's supposed to be all that indicative to the culture's truths. Emmerich and his writing crew incorporate the likes of the sun god Ra -- eventually becoming the villain, played by Oscar-nominated actor Jaye Davidson in another gender-bending role -- and like-minded symbols and deities, including an early role from Djimon Hounsou as a henchman to Ra in the form of falcon god Horus. They're constructed with the help of Egyptologist experts to drive up the setting's charisma with a bit of fantasy-infused yet semi-authentic flair about the language and a few cultural elements, not without some embellishment on the truth behind the deity's hierarchy and timeline.
And it works, because the rudiments of Egyptian culture paint up an alluring universe within Stargate. It's difficult not to be impressed with the stylish, intricate take on the mythology, due to dazzling production design and effective visual acumen. Computer-generated techniques are used to create elaborate morphing helmets and other digital effects that impress on ground level, yet what still really impresses with the visual effects is the usage of plane-like devices soaring over the Egyptian-infused town. Though from the mid-'90s, the effects -- smartly constructed with the technology's limits in mind -- still hold an impressive amount of water, though on a lower level to that of the still overwhelmingly effective Jurassic Park that's one year its senior.
Rife with explosions and bombast in the vein of later productions Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, Stargate is pure Roland Emmerich -- but it's more tightly-realized and exhilarating than his other high-budget whirlwinds in alien warfare and natural disasters. It comes loaded with a sense of adventure, a clever streak of humor, and flickers of gleeful romance and sentimentality underneath semi-suspenseful immediacy, lassoing everything together into a complete science-fiction adventure that stops at nothing to entertain. It's not without holes and gaps in logic, like many other productions of its type, yet the intrigue behind the concept and the sublimely entertaining adventure rhythm masks it all to a point that bolsters it ahead as a modern cult classic. Yeah, it's not perfect, but I be damned if it's not a blast from start to finish.
Lionsgate have presented Stargate in a very sleek 15th Anniversary package, adorned with a sleek cardboard slipcover that has raised text and a psychedelic circular design in the center of the gate. Of course, you can't help but chuckle at the title being "Stargate: The Movie" on this release, similar to "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark". Both cuts of the film, the 120 minute Theatrical Cut and the 129 Minute Extended Cut, are available via seamless branching when selecting to "Play Movie".
Menu Design for Lionsgate's second crack at Stargate is excellent, containing an interactive navigation utilizing BD-Java's attractive capacities. This interface is avalable both at the Top Menu as well as the Pop-Out Menu, which shrinks the image and makes the rotary functions available underneath it. Time was spent in making this package feel attractive and applicable to the film's attitude, which is greatly appreciated.
Video and Audio:
In quick words, those who experienced the lackluster first release from Lionsgate will be overwhelmingly pleased with this upgrade. Stargate first arrived with a wonky early Blu-ray encode that suffered from a world of issues, namely blistering contrast boosting, unstable black levels, and several color issues -- not to mention a dense amount of digital grain. Those clamoring for a more proper visual treatment of this very exciting and visual film will find one of the most improved visual treatments available between Blu-ray releases. Framed at its theatrically distributed 2.35:1 in a 1080p AVC encode, it's almost like watching a completely different film. Flesh tones are surprisingly natural and detail has been drastically improved, opening the film to a much more cinematic disposition instead of an overwhelmingly digital presentation. It simply looks much closer to the way it appeared in the cinema, which can be a very appealing visual experience.
Overall, the grain structure and color solidity behind it look astounding, though the image flickers a bit more than normal film shutter speed in a few sequences. Contrast levels look far better than previous releases, rendering healthy black levels and appropriate mid-level darks during the night sequences and the points within the dim interior shots. Probably the most impressive element comes in the naturalness of the color palette, looking damn near perfect during the outdoor sand sequences and against the metallic gradients within the costume design. Plus, some minor elements -- like the dust rustled up from sand, texture in the cover stone, and most of the elaborate Egyptian set design -- achieve some blistering moments of high-definition pop. Along with Requiem for a Dream, Lionsgate has offered one of the better leaps in quality seen this year.
And, thankfully, the impressiveness doesn't halt with the visual treatment. Available in a 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, Stargate comes out of the gate with a blistering, unabashed track that makes no bones about immersing the soundstage with impeccable breadth. Elements pour from the rear channels persistently throughout the track, offering one of the better rear-channel experiences to date in high-definition sound. However, it's not just loud -- though it certainly can be -- but also apt at handling delicate ambient elements. Rustling noises during the excavation sequence, the sound of a barely indistinct siren during the modern-day sequence as Catherine walks up the stairs, and the famous rollercoaster-like Stargate travel sequence make it an impressive experience. Along those same lines, both bold and discreet verbal clarity remain perpetually audible and distortion free. Now, some of the sound effects fall just a shade on the flat side by lacking in midrange punch, but that's just a handful of them; most effects make a very wide usage of high, middle-range, and low-frequency elements, like the laser shots deep in the film and the rumbling voice of Ra. This Master Audio track is, simply, an amazingly potent aural experience, easily one of my personal favorites of the year. Optional English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are available.
BonusView Picture-in-Picture: Stargate Ultimate Knowledge (Extended Cut):
Ranging from discussions from "Chariot of the Gods" author Erich Von Danken, history professors equipped with a wealth of knowledge on Egypt, to in-depth production discussion, this special feature is a fairly broad and insightful addendum to the other add-ons on the disc -- largely cobbled together from other features. The PnP pops up in the lower-left corner with the interview footage, which must, of course, have audio set to internal decoding in order to hear the sound. It's certainly worth the time, though, even though the content is somewhat sparse throughout the film.
Stargate: History Made (22:30, 16x9 HD):
Better looked at as a full length piece available under the 'Play All' option, this series of assembly pieces covers the conceptualization, construction, and legacy of Stargate. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin dive into the budgetary constraints behind the film in Deciphering the Gate: Concepts and Casting (7:50, HD), , embellished from 25 to 50+ million, as well as how they muscled Kurt Russell into finally committing to do the project -- and his effect on the set. Then, they covered their shooting time in Arizona and the scorching conditions in Opening the Gate: The Making of the Movie (10:10, HD), diving into the steeped production put into the film. They discuss the usage of "dog head" and "bird head" to refer to Horus and Anubis in the script, using an Egyptologist to elucidate the language, as well as the construction of the massive sets -- as well as using both a dog and a horse to create a beast early in the film. Finally, Emmerich and Devlin discuss the fact that they just wanted to do "better than Universal Soldier" in Passing Through the Gate: The Legacy (4:29, HD). They discuss some of the minimal moments in the scripts to allow for the actors to freeform, as well as Devilin's discussion of the spout-off series as "allowing others to raise his children". It also discusses the Stargate conventions and the sales of the film's props.
"Making of Stargate" Documentary (23:33, 16x9 from SD):
This featurette systematically goes through elements in the production -- from the Stargate, Ra's temple, and the other elements -- in a rhythm very similar to marketing-style interviews and footage. However, it also incorporates some strong behind-the-scenes shots, such as the construction of props (the water swirl from the Stargate and Ra's helm) to the build of sets. Classic interview time with James Spader and the cast also inks into the picture, as well as some other production guys not covered in the other features. Footage from the film also pops into the featurette as well, taking up a lengthy portion of the runtime.
Audio Commentary with Roland Emmerich and Writer/Producer Dean Devlin (Extended Cut, from SD):
Carried over from the 2004 Ultimate Edition, this commentary involves a very dense amount of enlightening information about the film. It dives into a broad range of points, from using sticks with cloth over them to appear as people in the distance to discussion as to why specific scenes were cut from the film (mostly because of time constraints). They talk about the scoring of the film and how composer David Arnold interviewing the cast, as well as other behind-the-scenes scoops. Some discussion also pops up about character motivation, actor anecdotes, and the like, as well as film-oriented elements like dissolves and the effect with Ra's burning eyes. More importantly, the two stay vibrant and interesting to listen to throughout the track, taking only a pauses.
"Is there a Stargate?" Featurette (12:11. 16x9 from SD):
Here, some discussion about whether aliens might have actually ventured to earth adds to the intrigue behind the film. It dives into historical accounts, especially from "Chariots of the Gods" author Erich Von Daniken, as well as the entire debate about the construction of the Pyramids. Several sketches and pictograms appear throughout the piece.
Also available are a "Master of the Stargate" Interactive Trivia Challenge, a previously unseen Gag Reel (3:15, 4x3 Letterbox), and a Theatrical Trailer (2:38, 16x9 framed at 1.78:1).
Quality science fiction can exist anywhere between being thematically tense or simply being a blast of far-fetched fantasy, and Stargate's exciting blend of cherry-picked Egyptian elements, sense of humor, and overall adventuresome tone easily makes it a grand achievement of the latter. Director Roland Emmerich, now a big-budget showman, showcases early glimmers of his boisterousness through a mix of explosions and theatrics, coming together into a grin-worthy, tightly-executed experience that's the epitome of sci-fi FUN. Lionsgate knows its strengths, playing up to the visual and aural attributes of the film with this new, refined Blu-ray presentation that offers it in a experience much more befitting its theatrical exhibition. Packed with extras for its 15th Anniversary, this Blu-ray is a very Highly Recommended affair -- especially for fans of the film, who will find this digital upgrade (whether from the Ultimate Edition for the Theatrical Cut or the initial Blu-ray presentation of the Extended Cut) a no-brainer.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site