In 1994, Roland Emmerich produced a masterpiece that would mark a whole generation and pave the way for a new era of modern science fiction: Stargate. It’s an ambitious production – perhaps the most ambitious of his young career – born from two films that he and his friend Dean Devlin imagined separately : Necropolis : City of the Dead, written by the author of Moon 44 during his cinema studies at Munich in 1978 – whose plot was centered on a spaceship buried under the great pyramid of Giza – and the film imagined by the screenwriter Dean Devlin, who was to be a « Lawrence of Arabia » on another planet. Together, they gave birth to Stargate, a feature film that will propel their careers with the general public. A success (financial more than critical) resulted in 1999 in a cult series, Stargate SG-1, as well as the appearance of a community of fans, still active today despite the cessation of many Stargate projects.
A movie about language and communication
On top of being a classic science-fiction film, Stargate is first and foremost a film related on the importance of language and communication. At different levels, Roland Emmerich uses language and communication to give a literary dimension to a cinematographic work, where scientific terminology, should prevail nonetheless. If you pay attention, you will almost never hear speeches or things related to math, physics or astrophysics (which the character Samantha Carter will add to the series). Whereas history, symbols, words, their meanings and how to understand them, are ubiquitous. It is a way for the director to approach and exploit themes that are dear to him: the universal language of love and fatherhood.
However, mathematics – especially geometry – are not totally forgotten. Roland Emmerich’s staging uses, in fact, several symmetrical planes and some decorations have precise geometric structures, to highlight the power and intelligence of superior beings. Finally, literature completes science and vice versa. But we will come back to the making of the film later on if you don’t mind.
When Colonel O’Neil and Doctor Jackson first met the people of Abydos, you may have noticed the lack of subtitles. When the film was released, critics whined this bias. And indeed, such choice was disconcerting. Nevertheless, it is justified. Undeniably, this absence allows the filmmaker to plunge the spectator directly into the heart of the unknown, to disorient him, just like the earthlings were, and who – like us – understand only the gestures of the indigenous people (offering, invitation…).
The subtitles will appear after Doctor Jackson has deciphered the phonetics of their language : « […] Once we know the vowels… » (cave scene with Sha’uri). Therefore, even the interactions between the inhabitants of Abydos are translated on the screen, as if the spectator became capable of translating this ancient Egyptian language too, like Daniel Jackson. This sequence in the cave, is also evocative of the capital importance of writing (hieroglyphic or not) and reading…
. Writing & Reading, symbols of truth
« Râ outlawed reading and writing. He didn’t want us to learn the truth. » – Daniel Jackson
It was by this sentence that we understood why the inhabitants of Abydos were prohibited from writing and reading. Ra enforced a totalitarian control and thus made us question the fundamental role of writing and reading in a world where, they are considered as weapons.
In the book Hypothèses (Editions de La Sorbonne), the author Arlette Fage tells us: « The writing of history is placed on the side of power ; she has power. » A quote that has never been truer than in Stargate. Indeed, it is by the deciphering of pictorial drawings and hieroglyphs, that Shau’ri and the people of Abydos are offered an alternative to their life, that of rebellion and, consequently, the possibility of a victory against a dictatorial power.
« Knowledge is power » wrote Dan Abnett in Titanicus.
Knowing to read.
Knowing to write.
Those are tremendous powers.
Whether in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materialsor George Orwell’s 1984, only to mention two concrete examples, we see how dictatorships are installed. And there is often an identical process. Political / religious thoughts, historical thoughts or literary and scientific thoughts are controlled by regimes which have understood that knowledge, in all its forms, are powerful weapons of rebellion. So by silencing thoughts, controlling what people read and watch, they are empowering themselves with something greater than weapons. Conversely, those who have the power use formidable, infantilizing elements of language (and communication) in order to persuade people that they are mediocre, unable to solve complex problems and proving that they are intellectually superior and in capacity to reign.
In his own way, Roland Emmerich therefore reveals his vision of the dictatorship and how it could be overthrown. By understanding how their ancestors on Earth rebelled against the power of Ra, Shau’ri realizes that the Gods are not invincible, that a divine power can vacillate and fall. Through writing and transcribing history via their ancestors and reading, the truth comes out. Ignorance gives way to awareness. Lying has the spirit of revenge.
Transcribing History to not forget and do the same past mistakes, this is Roland Emmerich’s teaching through Stargate. Writing and all that composes it (the wealth of vocabulary, spelling, grammar, syntax) is assurance, the guarantee of being able to compete with those holding the power and better understand what they fear the most, their weaknesses and the way to overcome them.
Are gesture and behavioral attitude an universal language ?
For almost an hour, communication between the terrestrials and the people of Abydos will go exclusively through gestures. The gestures will be a source of misunderstanding and then deliver funny scenes (the scene between Jackson and Shau’ri in the tent, Jackson imitating the chicken) or offer moments of intimacy and of deep sincerity (Shau’ri’s look on Jackson or the sequence between O’Neil and Skaara). It is interesting to note that when Daniel Jackson imitates the chicken, no one understands that he imitates a poultry. On Earth, in any country, everyone would have guessed the imitation. On another planet, the differences are significant. However, this comical element, quite ordinary, and which will now be attributed to Daniel Jackson, will allow Colonel O’Neil which is unable to communicate properly with the inhabitants of Abydos, to find this good old Doctor.
The scene where Kasuff, the village chief, invites our heroes to follow him with a gesture is significant for this universal language. We will laugh with the quote of one of the soldiers who asks Daniel Jackson: « How do you know ? » (That you have to follow them…). He then responds ironically, by reproducing the gesture of Kasuff, a movement of the two arms which is the same on Earth, that of the invitation.
. The universal language of love
The tenderness of a look, the beauty of a smile, all gestures that are in the range of behavioral language. With Stargate, Roland Emmerich will draw on this language to indirectly send messages to spectators – who cannot understand the spoken language of Abydos, despite intonations of voices that are sometimes understandable (nervousness, supplication …). The many glances launched by Sha’uri towards Jackson and vice versa for example, imply that an idyll is being born but also that the relationship between these two characters will be a dramatic vector, which will bring a certain dramatic tension to the history (Sha’uri’s death and resurrection scene).
This universal language of love, which can therefore be read in a look, a gesture or an attitude, is also found between Jack O’Neil and Skaara.
. The paternal instinct
Between Colonel O’Neil and Skaara, a bond immediately arose. It was born during their first encounter, when Jack O’Neil extends his hand to Skaara, kneeling before these newcomers to greet them. A common gesture, however, for the young man, this gesture of affection, the meaning of which he does not clearly know, makes him think that this God from another world is showing him a special interest. Despite his fear (he flees after Eye shakes his hand) he will later return to Jack’s tent, intrigued by this man who dared to consider him.
This relationship is quite special. O’Neil, who lost his son in a tragic accident, becomes friend with this young man, through whom he sees the adolescent incarnation of his son. On the other hand, Skaara, who seems to have no parent left, sees Jack O’Neil as the ideal parent, the one he may never have had. This father-son relationship, so to speak, takes a turn when in a moment of intimacy Skaara joins O’Neil at nightfall. O’Neil was speaking to himself. But it is above all his attitude, his posture, which will be copied. When the father is away during adolescence, we look for heroes. And, unconsciously, we adopt the same approach, the same way of dressing, the same little gestures, facial expressions or attitudes of heroes that we see on screen or not.
In this scene (see image on the right), we feel the absence of the father and the son. This is why, without saying a word, Skaara gets closer, communicates with O’Neil and begins to adopt / reproduce his actions identically (the cigarette, the sitting posture and those of the hands). As for O’Neil, the tenderness of these gestures towards Skaara, recalls the injury of the loss of his child but also, the anger linked to this loss. The violence of his gesture, when Skaara tries to take O’Neil’s gun says a lot (until the end, he will refuse to let the children have weapons). A very strong scene between two broken souls who ultimately need each other to rebuild themselves. This relationship will continue throughout the rest of the film and over time, mutual respect will settle between them, until this final sequence.
On the forecourt of the Abydos temple (see image on the right), after the victory against Ra, in the distance, Skaara will stand in front of O’Neil and send him a military salute which O’Neil will return to him. By this gesture, without a word, Skaara and O’Neil seal an intimate relationship from which each one will grow. Skaara found the hero he needed to grow, O’Neil found a reason to fight for inner peace.
An important relationship for Emmerich which he will pursue throughout the first season of Stargate SG-1 and further…
If Stargate has today a cult film status, it is also due to the quality of Roland Emmerich’s realization and that of these extraordinary sets. At the beginning of my article, I mentioned the geometric aspect of the film’s production, staging and sets. This geometric excellence in certain frames defines both the Alien’s majestic superiority as well as the complexity of the universe, which fascinates him. We talked about language earlier, and that of mathematics also seems universal. The perfection of the pyramid, the obelisks, the temple of Abydos, Ra’s ship and its interior are of remarkable precision and, if the film has only few scientific blah-blah, we find science (in a geometric way) in Roland Emmerich’s realization as well as in his sets.
In this plan (see image on the left), we realize that the Earthling is a tiny being compared to the Gods, physically and intellectually and that his place in the universe is insignificant. Roland Emmerich often insists on these elements. These elements run through most of the feature films in his filmography. He insists on the fact that Man is only an insect, fallen into an unknown world, much larger and wider, on which he has no control. Whether in the way of filming the temple, the pyramid and the village of Abydos, the devastating power of the sandstorm, the Goa’ulds or the attack on the Ha’Tak ; Roland Emmerich often films in a low angle view, in close-up (sometimes both at the same time) or with hindsight, in order to give strength to this hostile environment, a dizzying sensation of the environments / sets and thus, to show how the characters endure the action.
. Stargate : An horror movie ?
I was just talking about how Emmerich filmed his characters. One particular scene caught my attention, the one where we discover the Goa’ulds for the first time. The scene takes place during one of their attacks. Invisible at first, lurking in the dark, it is when the last living soldier is lying on the ground, that we finally discover the face of the Goa’ulds. The camera positions itself where the soldier is, as if we were looking through his eyes. In a low angle shot, the appearance of the terrifying Goa’Ulds takes shape.
This sequence of soldiers being attacked in the Temple of Abydos also reveals the horror of Stargate and how Roland Emmerich skillfully juggles with genres. Roland Emmerich, both original in science fiction, moving in drama and gasping in horror, manages to flood his film with a multitude of genres, all in subtlety and with a certain talent, in staging as well as writing.
And if we take the word horror in its original definition, Stargate is also a film about the horror of slavery, the horror of tyranny, the horror of indoctrination (the scene where the children protect Ra) and the horror of war.
Stargate is a not-to-be-missed of modern science fiction pre-2000. Even today, is there a science fiction blockbuster capable of competing with the intelligence and originality of such a project ? Since 1994, SF films have been following one another and, apart from a few rare gems such as Gravity and Arrival (which in my opinion are not really blockbusters), the genre remains cloistered in a succession of artificial sequences, with noisy explosions and hollow and soulless characters (such as Alien : Covenant, Prometheus).
Stargate is particularly interesting for its point of view on science fiction, but also for the place it offers to philosophical themes, to the detriment of action. Indeed, Roldand Emmerich’s film is never noisy, it is silent, it lets its characters exist and evolve, without seeking to submit brutal action to the spectators. Stargate is a discovery, an adventure with a capital A, punctuated by David Arnold’s lively music. It is a wake-up call and an unwavering love for Egyptian legends and myths. All of this makes Stargate, a cult and undeniable major work in science fiction…
Translation in english by Trystan Doré