Roland Emmerich. Bless him.

He makes big, lumbering films packed full of visual effects trickery - usually involving epic and expensive scenes of destruction involving spaceships, giant lizards, global warming or Mother Nature - which are, at best, daft but fun popcorn extravaganzas or, at worst, dull, predictably cliched 'disaster' movies in all the sense of the word. But as we'll see with Stargate it wasn't always such.

The trouble is that with every film he makes we're just given one more iteration of everything he dished up in Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow. The effects get bigger as world landmarks and entire slices of the globe get trashed in increasingly pornographic detail; the characters, usually delivered by well paid and notable thesps, are predictable cookie cutter Irwin Allen derivatives; and the plots are full of Presidents who have moral consciences, scientists and politicians who squabble between themselves over the evidence of impending disaster, conspiracy theorists usually proved correct in their paranoid ranting and broken families where an estranged father, mother and children suffer the 'end of the world' only to be be reconciled in the closing half hour. Did I miss anything?


2012, his latest blockbuster, whilst fetishistically offering brilliantly realised visions of various continents swallowed by volcanic ash and lava or fracturing and tipping into the ocean, spins out its character cliches for a good 40 odd minutes before anything truly exciting happens. If you like your disaster porn quick and dirty with no frills then this is tedium to the power of ten. This time it's those pesky Mayans and their apocalyptic calendar that predicts a solar balls-up every hundred thousand years or so that will trash the planet. So it's a sweaty Jimi Mistry, as an astrophysicist who warns various governments that the Earth is no longer on a low light, that proffers the doom laden scenario, This takes nearly an hour of screen time to develop whilst Emmerich indulges in the not so compelling story of divorcee John Cusack (as science fiction writer Jackson Curtis who has a part time job driving around a Russian oligarch - no, I'm not making this up) wringing his hands over how crap a dad he is as his wife Kate replaces him with another man (wait for it...plastic surgeon and amateur pilot Gordon Silberman) who is, y'know, actually there with quality time for their seriously annoying kids Lilly and Noah. Kids you wish would fall into a gaping chasm and plummet to the molten core of the planet for certain.


In an attempt to bond with his bed wetting daughter and his grumpy, disenchanted son he piles them all in a camper van to Yellowstone National Park and after meeting the very loopy Woody Harelson, as a doom predicting dippy hippy disaster geek, stumbles upon the approaching 'Earth is about to be trashed' crisis. Emmerich tries hard to convince us that that this not so happy family are the real, emotional core of the story and spends way too long in making the effort. The plot, the characters and the supposed emotional content are as full as cracks as the disintegrating tectonics (that's qualified by the vaguely scientific sounding 'earth's crust displacement') in Yellowstone. It eventually becomes a race against time to save the kids, the wife, the new boyfriend (cue lots of macho posturing between Jackson and Gordon) in a rickety plane as various bits of Los Angeles and Las Vegas explode, fall to bits and tip into the sea. Their escape through a riot of visual effects is both thrilling and silly as the CGI wobbles between genuinely awe inspiring visions and risible video game theatrics. There's also a lot of unconvincing simulated amusement park ride type screeching from the cast at this point that seriously undermines any intended realism.


Anyway, the plan is to get to China where the combined forces of the world's governments are building vast arks in which the chosen few, e.g the stinking rich, can survive. On the way, the US President, who is guaranteed a ticket on said arks, nobly snuffs it with his people not only under a layer of volcanic ash but also drowned in a tsunami that at the very least metaphorically puts the lights out in the White House. Emmerich depicts the world crisis by chucking in more of Jimi Mistry before he drowns in India, various tokenistic sheikhs, Tibetans, Russians whilst various world monuments are socked by Emmerich's visual effects team. Pretty much the pattern established in Independence Day, then. Meanwhile the other macho conflict of the film is well underway as chief scientist Adrian Helmsley, valiantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor who tries to inject as much dignity into this as he can, has various cat fights with the horrid Carl Anheuser, the White House Chief Of Staff, deliciously played by Oliver Platt, who would gladly sacrifice all the riff-raff to sail away in the arks before the Himalayas are submerged by a megatsunami. Can't say I blame him when faced with the severely liberal Helmsley and the all American dysfunctional family breaking into the launch bay.


The denouement, where Jackson has to free one of the arks because some twit literally dropped a spanner in the works, is truly cheese of the ripest order as is the 'happy ending' more or less comprising of the world having a lovely big hug on a luxury cruise ship whilst the sun rises over a brave new world. It's a typically absurd and naive Emmerich curtain call when pretty much all of the audience would have preferred an alternative where he drowns the whole bloody, sorry lot. It's big, dumb, silly stuff that requires a lobotomy and several stiff drinks to reap the benefits of.

The 1080p picture is excellent. Clean, glossy and vibrant with exceptional detail and clarity. The contrast, colour and texture of the images is very good indeed with only some momentary softness being the only distraction. It's accompanied by a simply stunning DTS 5.1 Master audio soundstage. If you want to hear the cries of Los Angeles citizens amidst the roar and rumble of destruction then this is well defined for you here in the mix along with crisp dialogue and the film's score. Good low frequency stuff - explosions, crashes, earthquakes, waves - that will give your woofer a workout too.


Special features
  • Audio Commentary - Emmerich and co-writer/composer Harald Kloser offer a somewhat monotone, less than stimulating track. Still, it does provide a lot of detail about the production, the science(!) behind the plot and building the characters.
  • Roland's Vision: Picture-in-Picture Commentary - Roland pops up now and again amidst a welter of behind the scenes interviews and footage, concept art, design work. A tad more engaging than the audio commentary.
  • Alternate Ending (HD, 4 min) -The survivors of a cruise ship provide a rather debatable conclusion to the film. Best that they left it alone.
  • Deleted Scenes (HD, 5 min) - There's a reason why these were deleted.
  • Roland Emmerich: The Master of the Modern Epic (HD, 10 min) - Self congratulatory, ego boost for the 'visionary' Mr. Emmerich please.
  • Interactive Mayan Calendar (HD) - Want to know about the Mayan calendar? Want a Mayan personality profile reading or a horoscope? Nope. Fair enough.
  • Designing the End of the World (HD, 26 min) - Probably the best of the features as it looks at the creation of the effects and interviews the designers, showing how much effort and time went into the screen magic.  
  • Countdown to the Future (HD, 22 min) - More background about 2012, the Mayans, climate change and the links to real science.
  • Science Behind the Destruction (HD, 13 min) - A bit more about that science stuff that allegedly informs the film's premise. Another look at that Mayan calendar and various hypotheses.
  • The End of the World: The Actor's Perspective (HD, 8 min) - Cast interviews
  • Making of the Music Video (HD, 3 min) - How they made the music video "Time for Miracles" by Adam Lambert. If you're that interested.
  • movieIQ - Sony's instant up-to-date access to cast and crew biographies, production details, trivia, and more.
  • BD-Live - Sony's standard BD-Live portal including trailers and the option to register the disc.
2012 (Sony Blu Ray - SBR55320 - Region B - Cert 12 - Released March 29th, 2010)

*************

Fast rewind then to 1994 and Stargate, Roland's early collaboration with Dean Devlin after their first hit Universal Soldier and after Devlin appeared in Emmerich's film Moon 44. The whole Stargate concept has now spun off into various television series, incarnated in Stargate SG-1, Stargate Infinity, Universe and Atlantis, and a whole industry of novels, comics, toys, direct-to DVD films and conventions. How to create a franchise without really trying, then?

But this is where it started. And it is clear why the concept made the leap to television because the very idea lends itself appropriately to weekly episodic adventures with a recurring cast of characters. I'll remind you. A mysterious artefact is unearthed in Giza and the military, led by Colonel Jack O’Neill (Kurt Russell), commandeer it and enlist archaeologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) to uncover its secrets and purpose. The object is a Stargate and is a portal to countless other worlds. O'Neill leads a team through the gate to a strange, alien world light years from Earth ruled over by the Egyptian like Ra and his people. Here, everyone is a slave, building pyramid like starship docking ports for the same cruel alien race that traveled to Earth eons before. Ra plots to seize the Stargate and O’Neill and Jackson must therefore overcome him if they are to save Earth and find a way back home.


For an expensive fantasy film financed independently of Hollywood this was a notable success and became something of a sleeper hit in 1994. It had little pre-release publicity and yet word of mouth ensured that it overcame its pulpy origins. It's a fun little adventure film that displays very little of Emmerich's later pretensions and seems to eclipse its rag-bag of science fiction tropes with enthusiasm and an amusingly played conflict between the two main characters, the rather nerdy Daniel Jackson (an excellent Spader) and the gruffly macho Colonel O'Neill (the ever cool Kurt Russell). Its mix of spaceships and pyramids, an unlikely pairing of Star Wars and Indiana Jones meets Lawrence Of Arabia (David Arnold's excellent very Jarre-like score ensures that) with ancient astronauts straight out of Von Daniken, has a Saturday morning adventure serial quality that's enormously attractive.


This collision of ideas and genres, stereotypical characters and adventure is beautifully photographed with a particularly good use of desert vistas by Emmerich to depict the alien world ruled over by Ra, the only notable role for Jaye Davidson post The Crying Game, it would seem. Davidson is suitably evil, controlling the planet through his army of warriors and special powers, but doesn't get an awful lot to do. And it isn't action all the way as the film pauses to offer Jackson a love interest amongst the slave population and O'Neill a back story about a son he recently lost. This does tend to slow the pace of the film down rather and you'll find yourself eager to get back to explosions, spaceships and fighting as this is where the film is most alive. The effects, for their time, were pretty good, including the early CGI combined with some rather good model effects to depict pyramid space ships, the warrior helmets and the dogfights, but they look somewhat dated now and yet there is an epic charm to the film that's infectious.


Overall, Emmerich directs with a sense of purpose and humour, marshaling the various elements well and, whilst it is a collection of recognisable science fiction ideas being re-used yet again, he manages to inject enough energy into the film with a certain lightness of touch that's evidently missing from the bloated works that followed.

Picture quality here is superb and probably the best format I've ever seen the film presented in. Vivid colour, great contrast, deep blacks and fine detail, where the landscapes and the close ups on faces really show off the 2.35:1 1080p HD transfer. The film is available here as the Theatrical Version and the longer Director's Cut (about 9 minutes longer) via branching. The sound is also given a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix and is all the more impressive for it. It's  a very immersive soundscape with the explosions and gunfire giving it a good low frequency highlight and with the score sounding very rich indeed.


Special features:
  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Roland Emmerich and Writer/Producer Dean Devlin: Good track with plenty of insights into the production. Devlin prompts Emmerich, who can be a bit monotone, and adds a liveliness to the proceedings and is full of trivia and facts about the production.
  • Stargate: History Made: This is a 22 minute documentary split into three featurettes - 'Deciphering the Gate: Concepts and Casting' which provides an interesting look at the development of the film with Emmerich and Devlin and a look at how they cast the film with interviews and behind the scenes footage. 'Opening the Gate: The Making of the Movie' looks at the shooting in the hot temperatures of the Yuma desert. There are interviews with designer Patrick Tatopoulos about the vision and style of the film, set building and creature design. 'Passing through the Gate: The Legacy' takes us beyond the film and looks at fan reaction and how the film inspired a whole franchise.  
  • “The Making of STARGATE” Documentary: 52 minute archive documentary that covers the development of the whole project with interviews, behind the scenes material, cast interviews, the design and creation of the effects, costumes and sets. 
  • “Is There a Stargate?” Featurette: 12 minutes on the ancient astronaut theories of a certain Erich von Daniken.
  • Gag Reel
  • BDLive, B-Roll and Original Stargate Previews
  • Bonus View Picture-in-Picture “STARGATE Ultimate Knowledge” Pop up picture in picture commentary running through the film with interviews, behind the scenes footage, design concepts etc.
Stargate: Special Edition (Optimum Releasing Blu Ray - OPTBD1703 - Region B - Cert PG - Released March 29th, 2010)

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