I know 'Stargate' was released in 1994, but why does it seem so late-'80s to me? Maybe it is James Spader, one-time uber-god of teen movies and dark thrillers about tortured yuppies, and his feathered haircut? Or Kurt Russell, doing his best to make us forget Snake Plissken and those early Disney movies, complete with flat-top and machine gun? Or the film's very concept, which borrows both the best and worst reheated elements from the 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' movies, not to mention cheesy '60s-era sci-fi? Really, when Spader and Russell first jump through the Stargate about fifteen minutes into the picture, I half-expected them to land on the forest moon of Endor, and have to help the Ewoks save a bunch of whales from extinction by porting them back at warp speed to Sea World, circa San Francisco 1985.
Okay, I'm just kidding. Just a little bit. 'Stargate' is not blazingly original, but a dozen years after its theatrical release, it is still pretty fun. And surprisingly memorable. Concocted by the filmmaking team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, whose only previous major screen credit was the forgettable Dolph Lundgren vehicle 'Universal Soldier,' expectations where hardly high for the flick upon its release. So it was all the more of a shock when it managed to become one of the sleeper hits of the year, and even more shocking still that over a decade later, it has spawned its own little cottage industry of small-screen spin-offs, including the popular cable series 'Stargate SG-1' and 'Stargate: Atlantis.' Really, did anyone expect that a dozen years on, we'd still be talking about a sci-fi movie whose big gimmick was a wormhole portal shaped like a giant cock ring?
Watching 'Stargate' for the first time in many years on Blu-ray, I was struck by how completely generic the film feels, yet also strangely unique. Sure, I'm a fan of Russell and Spader, but even after just finishing the movie, I can't even recall who there characters were or why we should care. The Stargate itself is a cool concept, but let's face it, we've seen this travel-to-another-dimension thing a million times before. Then there is the film's main villain, Ra ('The Crying Game's Jaye Davidson), an Egyptian-inspired meanie who is all evil glares and convoluted machinations. Oh, and don't forget the obligatory love interest Sha'uri (Mili Avital), or rather, try hard to remember her -- I can't.
So what is it about 'Stargate' that inspired such strong box office and a devoted cult following? Perhaps it is all about the details. What gives 'Stargate' its kick -- and likely is still its raison d'etre as a TV series -- is that the Stargate gimmick serves as a portal to all sorts of unique adventures. It ain't how you get there, it's where you end up -- it had been a long time since audiences had seen a movie that used Egyptian imagery and puzzle-solving(!) to drive its narrative, and in that sense, the film was ahead of its time. All one has to do is watch future box office hits like 'National Treasure' or 'Alien vs. Predator' to see 'Stargate's influence. The film's mix of mythology, aliens and action also recalls modern videogames, but before the era of the PlayStation and the Xbox. Back in 1994, Nintendo was still the rage, and a bitmapped Mario running around bopping creatures on the head with a hammer was considered state-of-the-art. In hindsight, 'Stargate' actually seems more original than it did back then, yet not in the least bit premeditated or contrived.
'Stargate' is also arguably Emmerich and Devlin's best film. Scratching 'Universal Soldier' immediately off the list, I really can't stand their more pretentious, less humorous later blockbusters 'Independence Day' and 'Godzilla.' At least 'Stargate' has genuine charm, its clunky plotting and shameless "homages" to sci-fi epics past coming off as sincere and endearing, rather than cynical. Maybe Emmerich really is the Uwe Boll of his generation, but with 'Stargate,' he got by on his sheer enthusiasm for convention and cliche alone. Granted, 'Stargate' has subsequently found a much more appropriate home on the small screen (which is fitting giving the episodic nature of its time travel gimmick), but how many filmmakers can say they created a sci-fi franchise without even trying?
'Stargate' has been released so many times before on disc that by the time the late, great Artisan finally unleashed the "Ultimate Edition" on DVD back in 2003, it seemed like a punchline. Thankfully, the 'Stargate' gravy train seemed to finally come to a halt with that double-disc set, which contained two versions of the film and enough extras to make even diehard fans cry, "We give!" But now we have the first Blu-ray edition of the movie, and forgive my cynicism, but I can't help but feel this still won't be the last time we see 'Stargate' on a next gen, high-definition format.
Whatever the future may hold, Lionsgate has chosen to present 'Stargate' here in its 130-minute Extended Cut form only, not the 121-minute theatrical version. In all honestly, I don't think those nine minutes add up to that much, and the film was long enough as it is. Purists will also likely complain about the lack of the original cut on principal alone, but so are the joys of capitalism. (Bring on the double dip, Lionsgate!) Also problematic is that the extra footage reinstated into the Extended Cut (previously billed as the Director's Cut on the "Ultimate Edition" DVD, by the way) suffers from noticeably inferior print quality, including frequent dirt speckles and random dropouts. There are also a couple instances of major damage that were so severe they couldn't be completely restored. Admittedly, these go by pretty quick -- namely a big splotch mark on James Spader's face during a reinstated scene -- but this is not an absolutely pristine restoration by any measure.
That said, 'Stargate' still looks very good for most of its runtime. In fact, some scenes are superlative. Much of the sun-drenched desert exteriors look terrific on Blu-ray, with a wonderful sense of depth and detail. People and objects far in the background that on DVD looked more like little blobs now have shape and definition. Colors, too, while tweaked somewhat have a rich, vivid saturation but don't appear to bleed or smear. Grain is present and more noticeable during some dark scenes, but it makes the transfer look film-like and I didn't find it excessive or distracting. Black levels are also largely rock solid, though again some of the reinstated footage could look a tad bit flatter in select shots.
As for any visible noise or compression issues, I felt this transfer was one of the more consistent Blu-ray releases thus far. I only noticed minor areas of posterization during a couple of dissolves (though again I'm watching this on the dreaded Samsung BD-P1000, so take that with a grain of salt). Otherwise, the image appeared pretty solid throughout, with no prominent noise that I could separate from natural film grain and certainly no macroblocking artifacts. Again, the Extended Cut footage suffers by comparison, so I can't say with any real certainty if any of those problems are due to possible compression issues or merely the quality of the source material. I also saw what looked like ringing around some sharp objects -- namely during the daytime sequences, when high-contrast edges were most prominent -- though this was also indicative of the standard DVD release. In general, I was far more impressed with the transfer quality of 'Stargate' than I expected.
Departing from most studios currently supporting Blu-ray and HD DVD, Lionsgate does not offer any significant audio upgrade on their discs, instead porting over the same soundtracks included on the standard DVD releases. Same goes for 'Stargate,' which here is presented in both Dolby Digital EX Surround and DTS-HD High Resolution (the latter which is still a lossy compression format, and not to be confused with DTS' upcoming DTS-HD Master Audio lossless codec). Luckily, both tracks are really quite good -- terrific at times, even -- which almost makes up for the lack a Dolby Digital-Plus or TrueHD option.
I don't know why, but as with the transfer, I just didn't expect much in the way of great audio from 'Stargate.' Perhaps that's because the film is over a dozen years old now, and has been released so many times before on DVD that I just figured it would sound all digitally processed and crappy. But both the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks often floored me. There are a few moments of seriously intense surround action during the film that rival the best remasters I've ever heard in a home theater environment.
My favorite bits come right up front, when the Stargate first whooshes our heroes back in time. There are some major low-bass frequencies pumped out, with my subwoofer rumbling almost non-stop for what seemed like minutes. The rears also really came alive with plenty of discrete sound effects during the sequence, and directional imaging between channels is never less than near-transparent. The rest of the film is almost as consistently engaging, with some effective pans between channels during the film's frequent action scenes. I also greatly appreciated the attention to ambiance. For example, during the otherwise boring love scene between James Spader and Mili Avital, there is some nice bleed of the score to the surround channels, which certainly helped to alleviate my pain. Frequency response is also excellent across the entire spectrum, which often makes 'Stargate' sound far less dated than it probably should. All in all, I was quite surprised by the quality of both the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks here, though I still hope Lionsgate will begin to produce TrueHD and/or uncompressed PCM tracks for all of their future Blu-ray releases.
Typical of most Blu-ray releases these days, extras here are relatively scarce.
Though the "Ultimate Edition" DVD was a two-disc set with plenty of supplements, all that Lionsgate chose to include here (or could fit on single-layer BD-25) is the screen-specific audio commentary with the filmmaking team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. But at least it is a pretty good track, and holds up quite well for having been produced in 1999. Though some critics (okay, many) call Emmerich and Devlin hacks, if nothing else both are quite passionate about the movies they make, and 'Stargate' was no exception. These two never allow for a dull moment, talking almost non-stop in back-and-forth fashion about all aspects of the production, from casting to the special effects to the arduous desert location shoot to the "design concept" behind Kurt Russell's hair. I can't say I like the movie that much more after listening to this track, but I can say I certainly understand and respect better what Emmerich and Devlin where trying to create.
Otherwise, that's it. Not even a theatrical trailer. (Note that I'm giving this disc two stars for extras, only because it includes the Extended Cut of the film, which should at least account for something.)
'Stargate' is still a fun movie, however silly. It has also earned a rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic sci-fi, spawning a verifiable avalanche of small-screen spin-offs. For the film's Blu-ray debut, Lionsgate has delivered a very fine transfer despite a few nagging print problems, as well as a great soundtrack. However, the lack of any real audio upgrade such as a Dolby TrueHD track, nor much in the way of extras, makes this one seem like a filler release. So unless you are a diehard 'Stargate' fan, I say you're probably better off saving your money for the eventual super-deluxe Blu-ray edition instead, or leaving it as a Netflix rental.