Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Dark Crystal

It's often said, not without plausibility, that the 1970s were the years when fantasy became an unstoppable pop cultural force. Indeed, this blog has since its inception championed the 1970s as a time of unique artistic ferment during which many, if not most, of our contemporary fantasies achieved a foothold in our collective imaginations that they have not yet relinquished. Despite that, I would like to submit an addendum to that thesis, namely that it was not until the 1980s that we would truly start to see the full fruits of the work of the previous decade. 

A good example of what I'm talking about is the 1982 movie, The Dark Crystal, which I recently had occasion to watch again for the first time in many years. I saw the film when it was first released and probably saw it again a few years later, after it appeared on VHS. I can't recall seeing it again until this week and, as such, my recollections of the movie's plot and other details were hazy. 

I did recall enjoying The Dark Crystal as a teenager, though I also remember that my opinion was in the minority among my peers, never mind adults, who largely found it confusing. That's understandable, as the action and characters are wholly fantastical, without any connection to our Earth. Likewise, the film proceeds incredibly briskly, clocking in at 93 minutes – the blink of an eye by the ponderous standards of 21st century Hollywood. It probably didn't help that the dialog is idiosyncratic and often opaque or that plot points are revealed only by a narrator's voice-over. Had Jim Henson had his way, it would have been even more cryptic, with some of its characters speaking only in a constructed language whose meaning is revealed via subtitles.

On the other hand, one could quite reasonably argue that The Dark Crystal respects the intelligence of its viewers. Rather than spoon feeding its plot with slow-moving expository scenes, it moves nimbly, trusting that viewers will understand the details the action implicitly conveys. That's not to say that the movie is perfect by any means. The main character, the Gelfling Jen, is something of a cipher, for example, and that leads, I think, to a certain level of detachment by the viewer. Jen is no Luke Skywalker; we learn very little about who he is or what he wants beyond a vague sense of his loyalty to his deceased master, urSu.

Yet, I can't hold this against the movie, because of how wondrous its world and characters are. The villainous Skeksis are simply amazing, upright vulture-lizard attired in rotting finery and bickering with one another within the Castle of the Crystal. So striking are the Skeksis that they even had an effect upon Dungeons & Dragons, in the form of the Nagpa that appeared in module X4, Master of the Desert Nomads. Equally amazing are the urRu Mystics, who stand in opposite to the Skeksis. Slow-moving and deliberate, the Mystics have six limbs and spend their time in quiet contemplation, contrasting with the power squabbles of the Skeksis. Both are delights to watch, not to mention testaments to the skills of Jim Henson's Creature Shop

All the characters and creatures in The Dark Crystal are Muppets of one sort or another and I couldn't help but marvel at both the imagination and artistry involved in their creation. The weird crustacean soldiers of the Skeksis, the Garthim, really impressed me, as did the landstrider mounts employed by the Gelflings. These are only the most prominent examples, however; most scenes included lots of other creatures in the background and they're every bit as imaginative as those shown front and center. Everything in the movie employed practical effects, not out for the fetishistic reasons we see in big budget movies nowadays, but because there was simply no other way to achieve these effects in the early 1980s. They truly are wonders of another era of film making.

As I said, The Dark Crystal isn't perfect. There have been more cohesive and approachable fantasy films since its release almost four decades ago. Yet, for all its flaws, I found it hard not to be impressed with the scope of its fantastical vision, accomplished before the advent of computer generated imagery, and without (too much) recourse to the well worn tropes of the genre. This is a movie that dares to present a different kind of fantasy world and to tell a story that isn't just the usual plucky band of rebels versus the Dark Lord – and does so in the span of barely an hour and a half. I wish there were more movies like The Dark Crystal today; if there were, I might be more interested in what Hollywood is producing.


  1. I never got a chance to see "The Dark Crystal" in theaters, but we rented it multiple times after it was released on VHS. Years later, I got the DVD to watch with my kids. I agree with you, there's something really special about it.

  2. It has aged well too. I was surprised by how much that I enjoyed watching it recently.

    Also so glad to see you posting again.

  3. Have you seen Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance? If so, what's your take?

    1. I saw bits of it when my daughter was watching. I thought it looked OK. I found the upgraded puppetry of the Gelflings distracting and wasn't keen on the CGI additions. However, I liked some of the world building, even though, ultimately, the story being told didn't strike me as at all necessary (like so many prequels).

      But I didn't watch the whole thing, so my opinion is only half-baked.

    2. The miniseries is top-notch and highly recommended!