15th Anniversary Edition
Film Length: 121 min./130 min.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC*
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1; French DD 5.1 (theatrical only)
Subtitles: English SDH; English; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Package: Keepcase with lenticular slipcover
Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 28, 1994
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 27, 2009
*Several reports now confirm that the disc available from at least some retail outlets contains a VC-1 encode of the film and features. There is no indication that a different transfer or soundtrack was used, or that this retail disc omits any of the special features discussed in the review. Further discussion is available in posts following the review, which is based on a disc provided by Lionsgate that is, to all appearances, a standard retail disc. This information is reported up front in the interest of full disclosure. (Updated on Oct. 29, 2009)
Stargate may be second only to Terminator 2 in the number of times it’s been released on laserdisc and DVD, and it’s still never looked good. The closest we’ve come so far is a Blu-ray release of the director’s cut in 2006 (featureless except for a commentary). Now, almost 15 years to the day after the film appeared in theaters, Lionsgate is issuing a deluxe Blu-ray containing both the theatrical release and the director’s cut (now rechristened an “extended” cut) with a host of new extras. Will fans finally be able to see the film as they remember it? Read on.
Does anyone not know the story of Stargate? A quick review (mild spoilers for those not familiar):
Egyptologist Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is an outcast among his scholarly peers, because he stubbornly insists that the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids. Jackson is recruited by a mysterious woman, Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors, in the last film she made), to decipher the hieroglyphics on a huge cover stone found by her father in Egypt when she was a little girl. The cover stone is kept in a secure military facility.
When Jackson cracks the hieroglyphic code, it turns out to be the key to activating a device found under the cover stone: the Stargate, a huge metallic ring of alien origin that opens a gateway to a planet on the other side of the known universe. Jackson bluffs his way into accompanying a military team on a reconnaissance mission led by Col. Jack O’Neill (Kurt Russell), who has been selected for the mission because, unbeknownst to all but his superiors, O’Neill is so consumed with grief over the recent death of his son that he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies.
After passing through the Stargate, Jackson, O’Neill and their team find themselves on a desert-like planet resembling ancient Egypt and inhabited by an agrarian society speaking a language that Jackson recognizes but can’t quite make out. It turns out that these are descendants of humans brought to the planet by “Ra”, an alien who has extended his life for thousands of years by inhabiting a human host (Jaye Davidson, still best known for The Crying Game). Long before human history was recorded, Ra established himself as a god reigning over Earth, using the Stargate to bring slave laborers to this distant planet to mine it for the powerful mineral of which the Stargate is composed. When the Earth population rebelled and overthrew him, Ra retreated to his mining colony, leaving behind the pyramids and stories of the sun god on which the ancient Egyptians based their religion.
The arrival of Jackson and O’Neill convinces Ra that human civilization has advanced enough to threaten him anew. After capturing or killing all of their team, Ra decides to use the Stargate to transport explosives to Earth with sufficient destructive force to decimate it. The only way that Jackson and O’Neill can stop Ra is to convince the leader of the planet’s population (Erick Avari) and his son (Alexis Cruz) and daughter (Mili Avital) to mobilize their people for a new rebellion.
Stargate was the second of five collaborations between director Roland Emmerich and writer-producer Dean Devlin. It may not have achieved the box office of their two subsequent sci-fi/adventure collaborations, Independence Day and Godzilla, but it’s a better film. Part of the reason is that it was made when filmmakers were truly excited by the new CGI tools available to them (Jurassic Park was the year before; True Lies the following year), but had not yet become so dependent on the computer that practical effects were being abandoned. The resulting marriage of techniques gives Stargate a weight and authenticity that later CGI-driven films increasingly lack.
Stargate also benefitted from imaginative casting. Putting Kurt Russell in an action role wasn’t a stretch after his stint with John Carpenter in the Eighties, but pairing him with James Spader, then primarily known as the unconventional star of Sex, Lies and Videotape, was a creative leap of faith that paved the way for other nerd leads in action films such as Nicolas Cage’s chemical weapons expert in 1995's The Rock, or Jeff Goldblum’s programmer/environmentalist in the Devlin-Emmerich production Independence Day, or even Matthew Broderick’s paleontologist in their remake of Godzilla. None of these were obvious leads for action films (although Cage subsequently made himself over as one), and Spader in Stargate is their progenitor. It’s his unexpected reactions, off-kilter demeanor and bizarre line readings (“Oh! We each get a tent”) that keep Stargate interesting between the big set pieces. (In one of the new documentaries on this Blu-ray, Devlin recalls how Spader spontaneously invented the moment where Jackson pauses in wonder before entering the Stargate. Devlin says it’s his favorite thing in the film.)
The rest of the cast is similarly off-beat, whether its Lindfors spicing up the crucial early scenes of exposition (watch the knowing smile with which she responds to Col. O’Neill’s declaration: “I’m here in case you succeed”), or Davidson looking exotic as Ra, or John Diehl and French Stewart playing members of O’Neill’s squad and managing to convey the sense that these are fully rounded individuals with lives beyond the immediate situation in which we find them. Mili Avital does a remarkable job as the requisite love interest (and a key player in the story, as it turns out), given the fact that it was her first American film, not one of her lines is in English and she was cast after shooting began. And Erich Avari puts such a distinctive stamp on Kasuf, the leader of the planet’s human population, that he hasn’t been able to escape the role since then.
Prior versions: A complete history of Stargate on disc would take too long, and besides it’s easy to summarize: terrible. The title seems to have been cursed by Ra. The first laserdisc had to be recalled and repressed because of an audio problem, and every subsequent iteration on LD or DVD has been inadequate in some way.
At NTSC resolution, Stargate is a visual nightmare. It’s full of scenes – in the sand-blown desert wastelands, in Ra’s shadowy palace, even in the swirling autumn leaves outside Col. O’Neill’s house – that resist all the tricks used by telecine colorists to disguise the limited resolving power of 480p video. It didn’t help that the DVD versions were derived from transfers made with LD in mind and were therefore riddled with edge enhancement and other forms of artificial sharpening. Even worse, compressionists were usually forced to sacrifice both bandwidth and space for the sake of a redundant DTS track that added nothing to the film’s sonic experience other than volume. The additional compression layered new artifacts into an already artifact-laden image.
Stargate has been available in two versions since 1996, when Emmerich oversaw the creation of a director’s cut LD, of which he approved the transfer after reportedly being dissatisfied with the original LD transfer in 1995. It was also for the director’s cut that Emmerich and Devlin first recorded their commentary on a 1999 DVD release by Artisan (subsequently acquired by Lionsgate). Approximately nine minutes longer, the director’s cut adds a number of scenes throughout the film, but its most significant change is to restore a prologue showing Ra’s first visit to Earth in prehistoric times. In the theatrical release, this event is shown only in flashback at a much later point in the film. The director’s cut also extends the sequence in which archaeologists discover the Stargate to include the additional discovery of one of Ra’s soldiers fossilized beneath it. Both of these additions suffer from the same flaw, in my opinion: They reveal too much too soon. The film is better off without them.
The most recent edition of Stargate on region 1 DVD is the so-called “Ultimate Edition” released by Artisan in 2003. It contained, on separate discs, the theatrical and director’s cuts, with the Emmerich/Devlin commentary on the latter and various other special features.
In 2006, Lionsgate released the director’s cut and commentary on an otherwise featureless Blu-ray disc using MPEG-2 encoding with DTS-HD sound. Watching this disc was the first time I had seen anything on a TV screen that even remotely resembled the film Stargate.
I’m focusing primarily on the theatrical cut, because this is the first time it’s been available in hi-def and, frankly, because I prefer it. If you compare this disc to the 2006 Blu-ray, it is immediately obvious that this is a new transfer and not just a re-encode of the earlier version. I’m sure there will be those with nits to pick, but I find this transfer superb. I have a personal list of visual “torture” scenes, including, e.g., any close-up of Katherine’s necklace, the scene of the two soliders arriving outside Col. O’Neill’s home and just about any scene involving a sandstorm. Every single one of them looked solid and detailed on this transfer. In fact, detail looked so good that I could see sparkle in the desert sand that simply hadn’t been visible before.
The color densities and overall values look better than I remember seeing in a long time. Emmerich disliked the original LD because it was too bright, and the 2006 Blu-ray struck me as committing the same error (though to a lesser degree). The tones of this transfer are pitched more toward the darker and richer end of the spectrum. The desert scenes have a more golden tinge, and the overall pallette is warmer with a dialed-down white level.
Fleshtones and facial detail are excellent, as are dark scenes such as those inside the “bunker” beneath Ra’s palace. Best of all, the opening title sequence, which has generally been a bore on home video, because the detail and textures on the mask of Ra over which the camera was scanning just weren’t well enough presented to be interesting, now have the correct density and color balance. That sequence alone demonstrates the degree of improvement over the previous Blu-ray and every version that preceded it.
Grain haters may object, because there’s plenty of grain on view. But hey, it’s the desert, remember?
Stargate had been previously remixed for DTS-ES 6.1 discrete; so the inclusion of a lossless track in 7.1 is no surprise. I’m only set up for 5.1, but that was plenty impressive. This is the clearest, cleanest and most detailed version of Stargate I have ever heard, and there is always something happening. Whether it’s the rain pouring down when Katherine recruits Jackson, the throb of machinery at the military base, the ever-present wind in the desert, or the sounds of the Stargate dematerializing a few people at the left while you watch scientists monitor the process on your screen, this track constantly gives you aural information beyond your field of vision.
Then, of course, there’s the journey through the Stargate itself. For many years I enjoyed letting it surround me and lift me out of my seat, but then the novelty wore off. This mix is a different experience altogether. It doesn’t so much lift you out of your seat as pull your attention back and forth through different sonic layers, simulating the journey that the travelers are supposed to be taking. I don’t think I’ve ever before heard so many strands of the experience so clearly, not even when I first heard it in a DTS-equipped movie theater. When you’ve got fidelity this good, who needs volume?
Yes, the dialogue is well-presented, and David Arnold’s somewhat overemphatic score sweeps you along like the old friend it is. But the immersive effects are the real revelation of this track.
Features marked with an asterisk appeared on the Artisan “Ultimate Edition” DVD.
Deciphering the Gate: Concepts and Casting (7:50) (HD). This and the following two featurettes make up a single documentary called “History Made”. The principal interview subjects include Emmerich, Devlin, Avital, Avari, effects supervisor Patrick Tatopoulos and Egypt advisor Stuart Tyson Smith (who compares himself to the character of Jackson, but without the space travel). In this first section, Emmerich and Devlin recall developing the script together and securing financing from foreign sources after being turned down by every American studio. (Sound familiar?) They also talk about their casting choices, some of which had to be pursued (Kurt Russell turned them down repeatedly).
Opening the Gate: The Making of the Movie (10:10) (HD). The difficulties of shooting in the desert are a major topic, but the single biggest subject is the insistence by Devlin (a self-confessed Trekkie obsessed with linguistic authenticity) that the characters in the film speak genuine Egyptian, which sometimes led to significant delays on set, while Smith translated, and often drove the actors crazy (Avari is especially funny on this point). There are a few seconds of interesting footage of Jaye Davidson speaking the Egyptian dialogue in an undubbed voice that will sound truly odd to anyone used to hearing the electronically manipulated voice of Ra in the finished film.
Passing Through the Gate: The Legacy (4:29) (HD). Reflections by Emmerich, Devlin, Avital, Avari and various Stargate fans on the film’s continuing influence, including its ongoing impact through its afterlife in series TV. Emmerich looks genuinely thrilled that people still tell him they like the film. And any true fan of the film should be able to guess what question Avari is asked the most. (He kindly gives the answer as well.)
Note: I noted occasional “combing” throughout these three sections, usually at transition points between the contemporary footage shot in hi-def and the historical on-set footage, which is of varying quality. Such flaws may be all but unavoidable when stitching together disparate sources, but in any case they are only a minor distraction.
Gag Reel (3:15) (SD). A better name would be “parody reel”. This intricately choreographed joke features appearances by Kurt Russell, Roland Emmerich, physical effects supervisor Kit West and dozens of other crew, and it parodies numerous familiar moments from Stargate to the accompaniment of the all-too-familiar soundtrack. A great antidote for those who think that filmmakers take themselves too seriously.
“Master of the Stargate” Interactive Trivia Challenge. Exactly what it sounds like: a trivia game for multiple players. I leave this for others to explore at their leisure.
Bonusview™ Picture-in-Picture “Stargate Ultimate Knowledge” (extended cut only). Exploiting Blu-ray’s advanced capabilities, this feature allows the viewer to play the extended cut with a PIP at the lower right containing both interview and on-set footage. Much of the interview footage appears to date from the film’s production. Absent this PIP format, it might have ended up on the cutting room floor of a documentary production, which doesn’t make it any less interesting. Also, a substantial portion of the material is recycled from the documentaries and featurettes provided as separate extras. As is often the case with PIP features, they are a distraction from the main film, because they cover too much of the frame. Eventually someone will figure out how to let the user control both the PIP window’s size and its placement.
*Commentary by Writer/Director Roland Emmerich and Writer/Producer Dean Devlin (extended cut only). This is the same commentary that appeared on previous DVDs, including the 2003 “Ultimate Edition” and the previous Blu-ray. In the interest of conserving time, I have not listened to it again, but I recall that it’s an interesting and informative commentary.
Note that you may have trouble locating this commentary. It appears as an option (under Setup, Audio) only after you have selected the extended cut under “Play”. At that point, it replaces the French 5.1 language track, which doesn’t reappear until the theatrical cut has been re-selected. It’s an odd design for a menu and one that’s likely to confuse more than a few viewers.
*The Making of Stargate Documentary (23:33) (WS but SD; on the “Ultimate Edition”, it was enhanced for 16:9). This documentary was organized according to specific elements of the film (e.g., the Stargate, the desert, the so-called “mastadge” creature the travelers encounter on the planet, the pyramid structure, etc.) and how they were achieved. Perhaps the most entertaining participant is visual effects supervisor Jeffrey Okun, who seems to take an almost child-like delight in the things that go wrong.
*Is There a Stargate? (12:11) (SD). A profile of Erich von Däniken, author of Chariots of the Gods, and a brief overview of his theories. The documentary footage of various phenomena claimed by von Däniken as evidence of prehistoric visits by extra-terrestrials is entertaining. Whether it convinces anyone is a different question.
Trailers. The film’s original theatrical trailer is included. It is 1.85:1 and in 16:9 widescreen, but to my eye it has not been remastered in high definition. The “international trailer” present on the Artisan “Ultimate Edition” has not been included. Available either at startup or under a separate entry labeled “Also available from Lionsgate” are trailers for: Planet Hulk, Hulk vs. Wolverine/Hulk vs. Thor, The Spirit, The Forbidden Kingdom and Battle for Terra. They can be skipped at startup with the “chapter forward” button.
Internet enabled. Although there is no menu entry for any form of BD-Live (or “LG Live” as it’s called on other discs from Lionsgate), the disc does indicate that it is checking for updates if your player is connected to the internet. There may presumably be additional content at a future date.
Fans have waited a long time for a really good version of Stargate, but the wait is finally over. Will this be the last time the film gets released on disc? If you believe that, I have some ugly roast lizard for you that tastes like chicken. Bwah, bwah! (Anyone who doesn’t get that reference isn’t a true fan.)
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub