On a barren desert planet millions of miles from Earth, a giant pyramid rises into the sky, its looming stone walls flecked with tiny high-tech windows. Ah, it's not a pyramid it's a spaceship! A spaceship in the shape of a pyramid! Watching STARGATE (MGM, PG-13), I felt as if I'd been trapped in a George Lucas production of an Earth, Wind and Fire album cover. This heavy-duty sci- fi action thriller is a piece of Egypto-kitsch: Floating around in its high-decibel barrage of light and magic are some trendy schlock-mystical notions about the dawn of civilization, yet almost nothing in StarGate makes very much sense.
Most of the movie is set on Abydos, a sand-dune planet that looks like earth in the days of the pharaohs. Passing through the StarGate, a mystical ring that beams you to other galaxies, a team of American military operatives has arrived on this eerie counterworld. Kurt Russell, sporting a crew cut that makes his head look squarer than Fred Flintstone's, is the commander, a macho nihilist with secret orders to destroy the StarGate. James Spader, with longish, grad-student hair flopping into his spectacles, is a saintly Egyptologist struggling to unlock the secrets of a language that resembles hieroglyphics. The two must join forces to defeat Ra (Jaye Davidson), an extraterrestrial who came to Abydos years before in his pyramid ship and installed himself as its ruler-god. Ra is the film's villain, but he is also, in effect, the founder of civilization. That he happens to be black renders the movie, at times, a kind of pop advertisement for the Afrocentric version of history though this notion is treated so abstractly that it's never more than a meaningless grace note.
Ra controls his minions by refusing to let them read or write. Learning of this, I wondered whether the script for StarGate hadn't been done on Abydos. The film has flashes of psychedelic visual energy, but its story is limp. Since none of the planet's residents speaks English, the movie boils down to Russell and Spader struggling to communicate with the local ragamuffins as if this were a '40s jungle picture. The one truly dramatic question raised by StarGate is, Why did Jaye Davidson choose to follow up his heartbreaking and lyrically sexy performance in The Crying Game by appearing in this glittery trash pile? Vamping the audience with his come-hither stare, spouting ''hieroglyph'' gibberish in an electromagnetic drone, he gives you the feeling that Darth Vader has been reincarnated as Ali MacGraw. C