After all these
years decades, Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” from 1982 remains a marvel to behold. We watched it in 4K streaming (my second time and Diane’s first), and the practical effects have aged beautifully. We are both excited to see how the new Netflix series turns out and looking forward to more Dark Crystal soon.
“The Dark Crystal” takes place on a dying planet on the brink of either great calamity or rebirth. The evil Skeksis have reigned for 1,000 years by using the magic of the dark crystal to enslave others and artificially extend their own lives with stolen life essence. Our hero is Jen, the last of the Gelflings, who has been raised by the wise masters called the Mystics. When his master dies, he is sent on a journey to find the missing shard of the Dark Crystal.
The plot is admittedly too simple. The film’s writers managed to pack in a ton of background lore, which is interesting, but the sheer number of clichés and other fantasy shorthand involved undercuts any of the story’s actual creativity. Though I imagine it took some inspiration from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (unlikely hero goes on a perilous journey to return an item of great power to the location where the great evil is at its strongest), hearing the same story told simpler after experiencing it so much better in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy makes “The Dark Crystal” appear far too derivative in comparison.
Thankfully, that is an altogether minor complaint since no one should watch this movie for the story. “The Dark Crystal” succeeds best at being a spectacle, and it is timeless in its execution. The world feels detailed, alive, alien, fantastic, and real all at once. The Muppets have never been more detailed or believable. The backgrounds, the fantasy scenery, and the realistic-but-fantastic fauna all equate to a movie that is essentially fantasy setting porn for even the most casual of fantasy fans.
Best of all, the evil Skeksis are a marvel of storytelling done through performance and costume alone. Though the movie has little time to give backstories or names for each one, you get a real sense of each personality and their role from their costume imagery and behaviors alone.
I doubt “The Death of Stalin” was paying any sort of homage to “The Dark Crystal”, but when the Skeksis ruler is on his deathbed and all are gathered around, obviously waiting to become his replacement, Diane remarked how similar it was to Stalin’s advisors gathered around him as he lay dying. Without having to say it, there’s a certain tyrannical autocratic element to the Skeksis that gives the impression that each is as cruel as the next, with different specializations, no different from advisors to any tyrant.
Much of the movie is told through lengthy exposition, but when it comes to the Skeksis, Jim Henson and Co get the concept of “show don’t tell” perfect.
For me, “The Dark Crystal” is a perfect example of 80s fantasy and why it remains one of the most important decades for the fantasy genre, regardless of medium. The use of practical effects is perhaps the biggest reason, but there’s also a sense in the 80s fantasy films that story did not need to be dumbed down. As simple and, frankly, dull as “The Dark Crystal”’s plot was, the lore is complicated, it relies much on proper nouns for races of beings you’ve never heard of, and it assumes the viewer (no matter the age) will follow along. It also doesn’t pull any punches in the emotional aspects of storytelling when the romantic interest and the lovable dog stand-in nearly die.
I absolutely love this about 80s movies and loved watching “The Dark Crystal” again. It’s a timeless, beautiful work of film art.