By Rob Hunter
It’s a known fact that the summer of ’82 offered up perhaps the best movie season on record (no, really, you can Google it), but the entire year is a never-ending marvel of cinematic joy. A small sampling includes 48 Hours, Blade Runner, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Gandhi, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tootsie, and The World According to Garp. Hell, we even got The Beastmaster, Megaforce and Zapped.
But as fantastic and memorable as those movies are there are two specific releases from 1982 that helped shape a young me into the movie lover I am today. First up was John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film I had been anxiously following in Fangoria and Starlog (and one I had to guilt-trip my dad into taking me to for having walked me out of Conan the Barbarian during the witch-humping scene), and then six months later came Jim Henson‘s and Frank Oz‘ fantastical puppet adventure, The Dark Crystal. The two movies could hardly be farther apart in tone and style, but they shared a mastery over practical effects used to create a world, build atmosphere, and enhance a story in ways many effects-filled movies never manage.
We can all agree that Carpenter’s film is a classic, and my annual viewings on Blu-ray show that it holds up in every regard. But what about The Dark Crystal? It doesn’t appear in conversation nearly as often as other ’80s kids films do. You never hear any talk of a reboot or remake (and the proposed sequel is dead too). And perhaps most damning, BuzzFeed has never done a “Where Are They Now?” feature on Jen, Fizzgig, or Aughra.
So is the rest of the world just missing out, or is The Dark Crystal just not as good as I remember? Clearly a revisit was in order, so I went to a local theater (here in Portland) and watched it on a glorious (yet visibly aged) 35mm print.
“Another world, another time, in the age of wonder…”
The crystal, the source of all things, cracked 1000 years ago. Two new species appeared. The greedy and flightless vulture-like Skeksis take control of what remains of the crystal and wipe out the planet’s humanoid Gelflings, while the slow-moving Mystics live in a hippie-like harmony far away from what remains of the crystal. There are only ten left of each of the two species, inexorably linked since their creation, and when the Skeksi emperor dies one of the Mystics fades to black as well.
Following the clues of a long ago prophecy, the remaining Mystics send their adopted son, a rescued Gelfling named Jen, to find the missing shard and restore the crystal (and the planet) to its former glory before it’s too late. Alerted to the plan, the Skeksis send a squad of giant, hermit crab-like marauders to stop him, and the race is on between creatures of good and creatures of gross and disgusting evil.
The Dark Crystal opened in theaters at the end of the year in third place (behind Tootsie and The Toy) and went on to gross $40 million against an estimated $15 million budget. None of those details were important to me then as my only concern was returning to the theater the next day to see a second time. Watching it now as an adult didn’t leave me feeling quite as enthused, but I did walk out with a smile on my face after the movie managed to satisfy my nostalgia needs and entertain me all over again.
Unlike other ’80s staples of the puppet fantasy subgenre like Labyrinth and The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal is utterly devoid of human characters. It’s all puppet all the time (aside from some wide/long shots of people running while ensconced in character exteriors), and the world is exactly as alien as it needs to be because of it. Co-directors Henson and Oz, working with composer Trevor Jones and designer Brian Froud (among others), refused to half-ass a single element here.
Characters come to life through a variety of means, and while some work better than others they all combine to still fantastical effect. Traditional puppets exist alongside performers in suits, animatronic creatures live and breathe beside bats on rubber string. Hell, Fizzgig is frequently little more than a ball of fur that gets tossed and rolled around the various sets. The world here is fully alive as evidenced by multiple scenes of Jen moving through forests where every rock or lily pad hides the potential of life. Recent films like Oz the Great & Powerful or After Earth feature similarly set scenes, lead character(s) walking through alien woods, but neither of them capture 1/10th the imagination or immersive nature seen here.
As it exists, the movie would/could not be made the same way today. Obviously the practically-created characters would be replaced by CGI, but more than that the film’s tone and presentation would be sped up and watered down to make it more palatable for today’s simpletons (both perceived and actual). Watching it now you can’t help but notice a pace unafraid to slow down dramatically between action scenes. Story is doled out through narration, exposition, and imagery, but there are no machine gun-style visuals to appeal to the ADD crowd.
It’s a PG-rated adventure that would now earn a PG-13 or, more likely, just be cut of the darker, edgier material starting with the introduction of our hero, Jen, laying naked by a river. Aughra’s nipples would have to go too. Other scenes that set my mind spinning with unease as a kid and remain surprisingly effective even now include the Skeksis’ humiliating beat down of Lord Chamberlain that sees him stripped naked and left cowering against a wall, the poor Doozer-like Podlings having their souls sucked out, Kira’s death by stabbing, and the Hunter-crab squad’s fight with the two landstriders that doesn’t end well for the leggy beasts.
All that and there’s not a single fart joke!
The script by David Odell never feels dumbed down content-wise, but it is still fairly simplistic in its lack of anything remotely resembling character depth. It’s clear what’s happening and why, and we come to care for the characters based solely on what they’re doing as opposed to who they are. That’s hardly a damning criticism for a kids’ movie.
The Dark Crystal remains a wonderfully crafted adventure from a simpler time. The effort and talent required for its creation are still visible on the screen in the design of the smallest creature on up to the biggest set or matte painting, and even thirty years later I’m still impressed by the epic-ish scale, the dramatic intensity, and more than a few of the puppet designs. (Landstriders for life.) And I’m not alone. The Jim Henson Company is planning a new novel set in the world of the film, and they’re essentially holding open auditions for a writer. If the book does well it’s possible we’ll be seeing a new Dark Crystal movie in the very near future.
So to answer my own question above… yes, The Dark Crystal still holds up.