Amazing what time and a little objectivity can do. I never regarded this film as being great, but I remember it as being pretty good and fairly entertaining the last time I saw it. Seven or eight years later, watching 'Stargate' is a trying experience, because the film has not aged well at all.
The plot revolves around an ancient and mysterious ring like device discovered in Egypt. Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a historian/linguist with radical and unpopular views on ancient Egypt, is brought to a secret military base where he is tasked with deciphering the markings associated with the device. Jackson has the mystery cracked in a few weeks (after years of unsuccessful wheel spinning by the inept military boffins) and figures out how the 'Stargate' device works. Turns out it's a teleportation machine that links up to another Stargate on a distant planet. Dr Jackson accompanies a military team led by Colonel Jack O'Neil (Kurt Russell) to the alien world, only to discover that he can't re-open a portal back to earth without first locating some key information. Stuck on the planet, the group find a village / labour camp nearby and befriend the locals, but the arrival of the evil alien Ra (Jaye Davidson) - he of Egyptian mythology, who here is worshipped by the planet's people - in a giant pyramidal space ship throws a spanner in the works.
'Stargate' has a pretty interesting, if not exactly original, concept - a powerful alien traveling the cosmos as a god and subjugating people taken from the earth thousands of years in the past, an entire culture and language based upon the society created by said god, and a nifty teleportation system. The designs and locales are also very cool, obviously owing much to real ancient Egyptian society.
Having said that, the problems are many. The story is sketchy at best, but worse still is the actual script which sees things happening in the most perfunctory and unconvincing manner possible. There's not even the slightest attempt at grounding the film in anything that remotely approaches reality. Jackson cracks the secrets of the Stargate almost randomly, this after having put the rest of the experts to shame mere minutes after his arrival on the military base. He then manages to get a team sent to the planet without explaining to anyone exactly how he's going to get them back - apparently he's still the only one who can understand how the Stargate works even after he's explained it to them! Once on the planet, Jackson just happens to accidentally get dragged to the nearby village by a really fake looking alien creature. The military team that is sent in have no clearly defined mission (apart from Colonel O'Neal's super secret one) - what did the rest of these eggheads think they were supposed to be doing on the planet? There are poorly executed cliches aplenty as well, with 'comical' communication mishaps with the natives, inept gung ho soldiers (atrociously cast and acted), overblown military blowhards, hollow comic relief, and an unlikely and unconvincing romance, to name a few.
As I said earlier, there's no sense of reality. Humans have discovered the presence of alien life, alien technology thousands of years old, teleportation to a planet thousands of light years away, and a completely alien culture living there, and yet none of this appears profound to anyone in the film, and to most it's not even remotely interesting! Despite outward appearances 'Stargate' isn't even sci-fi light, with its few interesting ideas touched upon only superficially. The irony is that the film plays it all straight, as if it were a serious sci-fi epic, which further compounds its badness. As an adventure film, it isn't that exciting either. Apart from a few spectacular money shots that establish the scope of the film, most of it is fairly small scale, unexciting and dull. The action scenes that take place are dreadful, lacking in tension and shot and edited more like a TV show from the eighties than a big budget movie. The effects may have been state of the art at the time, but apart from the Stargate effect the rest of it is fairly generic and unimaginative. As for the characterization, it's non existent, and the resultant interaction between characters is humdrum. Spader and Russell are adequate in their roles, but pretty much everyone else is forgettable with the exception of Jaye Davison, who is quite good as the creepy and malevolent Ra.
The best things about 'Stargate' are its visuals from a design standpoint, the music - in particular, the memorable main theme - and the decent to mediocre TV show that it inspired, which actually developed the overall idea in a far more interesting way than the movie. Today's vapid spectacles easily trump this in terms of action and effects, so even if it had those things going for it in 1994, it's truly redundant now. It's true that apart from the script no other aspect of the film truly stinks; but is "doesn't completely suck" the type of accolade one would use to describe a film worth watching? Nope.