In 1994, linguist and Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) is invited by Catherine Langford (Viveca Lindfors) to translate the hieroglyphics on stones that her father had unearthed in Giza in 1928. They are nearly ten thousand years old. He is taken to see US Air Force Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell), who tells him the project is highly classified. The Stargate Project concerns an ancient stone ring that uses galactic co-ordinates to send objects to other planets through a wormhole. Jackson and O’Neil travel with a small team to the distant planet Abydos. They find themselves in a pyramid but do not have the co-ordinates to get home because the plaque is damaged.
Outside, they find a tribe of humans mining a strange mineral in the desert. They speak a dialect of ancient Egyptian and Jackson is able to communicate with them. The tribe believes the troops are emissaries of the god Ra. The Chief, Kasuf (Erick Avari) gives Jackson his daughter Sha’uri (Mili Avital). O’Neil befriends Kasuf’s teenaged son Skaara (Alexi Cruz) because the Colonel lost his own son in a firearm accident and has never fully recovered from it. Ra, it seems, is an alien who came to Earth in ancient Egypt to possess bodies to extend his life. The humans revolted, overthrew the overseers, and buried the stargate.
That night, Ra’s ship descends to cover the pyramid and his soldiers capture Ferretti (French Stewart) and Freeman (Christopher John Fields) and kill Porro (Steve Giannelli) and Reilly (Jack Moore. When Jackson, O’Neil, Brown (Derek Webster) and Kawalsky (John Diehl) return, there is a firefight and Jackson is killed. Ra (Jaye Davidson) places Jackson’s body in a coffin-like device that regenerates him. Ra explains to Jackson that he has found the atomic bomb O’Neil brought with him and increased its power a hundred-fold. He intends to send it through the stargate to Earth. Skaara and his friends create a diversion that allows the prisoners to escape, except that Freeman is killed. They hide from Ra in caves. Skaara draws a symbol on the wall that Jackson realizes is the last symbol needed to return home.
There is a revolt with O’Neil and his team supporting the villagers against the overseers. Sha’uri is killed, but Jackson sneaks her body aboard Ra’s ship via teleportation as O’Neil fights the guard captain Anubis (Carlos Lauchu). Jackson places Sha’uri in the regeneration device. Ra discovers them and tries to kill Jackson. They escape via the teleportation device and use it to transport the bomb to Ra’s ship, which explodes as it rises into space. The team returns to Earth, except that Jackson stays behind with Sha’uri.
The film was directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich. The powerful score was written by David Arnold, his first film. The wormhole inside the stargate was difficult to make but was impressive. The film was poorly reviewed but popular with audiences and made a lot of money. It was nominated for ten SF awards and won six of them, including a Saturn.
The red glowing eyes of Ra were added in post-production because test audiences didn’t think Ra was alien enough. Jaye Davidson so hated the attention he got after The Crying Game that he didn’t want to be in another film. He thought his demand of a million dollars would make the offer go away, but it didn’t. Still, he made life difficult with his refusal to do things like remove his nipple-rings. Why shouldn’t Ra have nipple rings, I wonder. Early screenings of the film were disastrous, so they had Ra’s dialogue subtitled to explain the plot. It was French Stewart’s first film.
Kurt Russell read the script and turned down the lead role. They offered him a lot more money and later found out he had been sent a terrible first draft. Two Egyptologists hired by the shoot used to sit around and chat in ancient Egyptian. As usual, there was going to be a trilogy, but it didn’t happen. However, the TV series Stargate SG1 ran for ten years, plus two TV movies, with Michael Shanks as Jackson and Richard Dean Anderson as O’Neill, later replaced as leader by Ben Browder. Then there were the Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe series, featuring a long list of science-fiction stalwart actors like Jason Momoa, Robert Picardo, Robert Carlyle, Ming-Na Wen, and Amanda Tapping. In that series, we learn all about the snake-like Goa-uld who live inside and control the human hosts, putting them firmly in the ugly alien category.