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‘StarGate’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 28, 1994

“StarGate,” Roland Emmerich’s loopy, mostly entertaining sci-fi adventure, begins in 1928 at the foot of the Great Pyramids, where archaeologists have unearthed an enormous ring-shaped artifact covered with strange markings. Immediately the scene shifts to the present, where experts are still baffled by exactly what it is they’ve dug up.

By this time the ring has been transported to an underground military site in the United States. In an act of desperation, the researchers bring in Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a brilliant Egyptologist whose radical—some say insane—theories have alienated him from the intellectual mainstream. In short order, Daniel determines that the ring is actually a sort of map of the heavens that, if properly calibrated, becomes a doorway for instant travel to the far reaches of the universe.

To this point, “StarGate,” which was written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin, holds our attention through a combination of suspense and funky wit. The latter is supplied primarily by Spader. The truth about Daniel is that he’s a little daft—which makes him a great character for Spader. Slowly but surely, Spader is emerging as one of the most accomplished, watchable actors in the movies. With his shaggy hair drooping over his brow, he plays Daniel as a bumbling egghead lost in his own thoughts. Also, like the Richard Dreyfuss character in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Daniel is something of a child, and his sense of wonder at the miracles opening up before him gives the film its emotional center.

Not only does Spader’s comic spin carry us through the first half of the film, it also provides a neat counterpoint to the heavy seriousness of Kurt Russell, who is saddled with the thankless role of Col. Jack O’Neil, the military officer overseeing the project for the government. After Daniel has deciphered the symbols on the StarGate, he joins a reconnaissance team that walks through it to the other side of the galaxy. The group, led by O’Neil, emerges in a desert environment similar to that of Egypt but peopled by a multitude of primitive slaves who mine a precious metal for their master, Ra.

Once on the other side of the StarGate, O’Neil and his team discover that Daniel can’t get them back again. And while they remain stranded, the movie is too, even though the new planet provides some science fiction excitement. The effects conjured up by Peter Mitchell Rubin and Patrick Tatopoulos—including a wonderful lumbering creature that looks to be part elephant and part yak—are inventive, often even thrilling. And as the god Ra, Jaye Davidson is perfectly otherworldly (when he’s angry, the whites of his eyes glow like headlights).

But with nowhere to go, Emmerich treads water with a budding love affair between Daniel and a beautiful slave girl named Sha’uri (Mili Avital) and a trifling plot in which Ra attempts to send a bomb back through the gate to destroy the Earth. Though Spader’s character dominates the first half of the film, he seems to get lost in the second—even when the character is on screen. By the end, the film’s early promise has pretty much degenerated into routine pyrotechnics.

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