Another world, another time in the age of wonder.
British-American fantasy film The Dark Crystal (1982) was the first feature film containing only puppets and costumes, with no visible human actors seen on screen at all.
Visually, every scene is a masterpiece, a pure work of art. Despite this, somehow the rest of the film never quite manages to live up to the cinematic expectation.
When single shines the triple sun
What was sundered and undone Shall be whole, the two made one
By Gelfling hand, or else by none.
A strange world has been ruled for 1,000 years by an evil race of predatory creatures known as Skeksis. Their rule is based on their ownership of a powerful crystal that they keep in their castle. However, prophecy has foretold that their rule will end after a thousand years, at the time of a triple-conjunction of the world's three suns.
If a Gelfling, a sentient race that the Skeksis believe they have made extinct, reunites the crystal with a small fragment that was removed a thousand years earlier at the time of the conjunction, then the balance of good and evil will be restored.
Is Jen the last surviving Gelfling, and will he be able to find the crystal fragment, known as the Shard? Can he survive the gruesome jungle full of plants that move, and animal-like vegetation? Will he reunite the Shard with the Dark Crystal before the Great Conjunction, or will the selfish Skeksis' triumph?
Cast and Crew
|Jen||Puppeteer: Jim Henson|
|Assistant: Kathryn Mullen|
|Body: Kiran Shah|
|Voice: Stephen Garlick|
|Kira||Puppeteer: Kathryn Mullen|
|Assistant: Steve Whitmire|
|Body: Kiran Shah|
|Voice: Lisa Maxwell|
|Aughra||Puppeteer: Frank Oz|
|Assistant: Dave Greenaway|
|Body: Kiran Shah|
|Voice: Billie Whitelaw|
|Chamberlain||Puppeteer: Frank Oz|
|Voice: Barry Dennen|
|Fizzgig||Puppeteer: Dave Goelz|
|Voice: Percy Edwards|
Director Jim Henson is best known as the creator of The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and the director of Labyrinth. Frank Oz co-directed, allowing Henson to work on both this film and The Great Muppet Caper at the same time. Many of the cast and performers had previously worked with Henson on The Muppet Show. David Odell wrote the screenplay based on a story Henson created.
Associate Producer and Henson's right hand man, Duncan Kenworthy OBE, had previously made the Arabic version of Sesame Street in Kuwait before returning to the UK to work on The Dark Crystal. As well as working with Henson on Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller, he later produced Four Weddings and a Funeral. Faz Fazakas was the 'technical wizard' who had pioneered the use of radio-controlled puppets for Henson's 1977 television special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas.
Producer Gary Kurtz was also the producer behind the original Star Wars trilogy.
Growing The Dark Crystal
I wanted to create the world first. The visual world. What the creatures looked like... what the whole place was. I wanted to start with that, and let the story grow.
– Jim Henson
The Dark Crystal took five years to film from basic outline to finished release. Henson had moved to London in 1976 in order to make The Muppet Show, which was produced by Lord Lew Grade. Making The Muppet Show in England while also undergoing work in America where his family lived, meant that he spent a lot of time flying across the Atlantic. In 1977, Henson began collaborating with his daughter Cheryl on the fantasy world's background, with much of the work created while the pair were snowed in at Kennedy International Airport, scribbling notes on numerous sheets of hotel notepaper.
Henson planned a dark fantasy film about the balance of good and evil, inspired by British artist Brian Froud. Henson visited Froud in his Dartmoor studio. Froud described his work on creating The Dark Crystal's inhabitants by saying, 'Jim had some ideas about the characteristics of some of the creatures, but it was up to me to show how they would look'. While Froud created the look of the creatures in 1978, the project took a back seat when Henson made The Muppet Movie in Los Angeles. The phenomenal success of this, the first Muppet film, persuaded Lord Lew Grade of ITC Entertainment to finance The Dark Crystal.
Originally the world that The Dark Crystal was set on was to have been known as Mithra, with the rulers called Reptus in power following a coup 20 years earlier, when they deposed of Malcolm the Wise and the ruling Eunaze people. Only survivor Brian, just two at the time of the coup, is now an adult raised by Bada wizards. The Bada are a race of ancient sorcerers who perform strange and terrifying rituals.
In Mithra, mountains can talk, rocks can move and plants are half-animal. The Reptus live in a mountain-citadel, and derive their power from a lodestone. They have an army of servants who wear a metallic uniform, and perform acts of cannibalism on those who disobey or fail. They also have a slave race.
In 1979 with Grade's backing, work began on making both Henson's first feature film, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Dark Crystal. As Henson intended all the characters to be puppets, he needed a base in which to create the characters. So he bought a former Post Office, 1B Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, a building across the road from where he lived. This was the first home of what became the Jim Henson Creature Shop.
By early 1980 the team he had assembled were pushing the boundaries of puppetry, pioneering techniques never applied to the craft before. Henson revealed some of the dedication committed to bringing his vision to the screen by saying 'We'd build a rough [character], video-tape it moving in the studio, then take the character apart and start again'. When casting characters, not only were some of the principle puppet performers veterans from The Muppet Show, including Henson who performed Jen, and Oz who was Aughra, they also cast performers to bring the creatures in costumes to life. Dancers, mime artists, acrobats and clowns were hired, under the lead of Swiss mime artist Jean-Pierre Amiel.
The Dark Crystal was shot as a silent film, with dialogue and music added later. Originally only the Gelflings spoke in English; the Skeksis spoke Greek and the Mystics Egyptian, with subtitles revealing what was said. After early screenings revealed that the subtitles were unpopular, especially with younger audiences, this was changed. The script was re-written with English dialogue that fitted the puppets' mouth movements. At this time the characters originally known as 'urRu' were renamed 'Mystics', although when the Mystics enter the Castle of the Crystal, one of the Skeksis still calls them 'urRu' in the finished film.
While The Dark Crystal was in production, ITC suffered from two box office failures. The first was Can't Stop The Music, a 1980 film starring the Village People released just as disco lost its popularity. This was followed by Raise The Titanic, (which cost twice as much to make as The Empire Strikes Back), that only recovered 20% of its phenomenal cost1. ITC were no longer able to afford to make films2, thus delaying The Dark Crystal's release. ITC turned to Universal Pictures to handle the film's distribution. On its release the film was popular with critics and a modest financial success.
A documentary entitled The World of the Dark Crystal was made, revealing how the film was crafted.
Dark Crystal or The Dark Crystal?
When released in the cinema the film was entitled The Dark Crystal, however when available on home video on VHS in Britain, it was simply called Dark Crystal. Since DVD, all subsequent editions have been entitled The Dark Crystal.
Inhabitants of the World of The Dark Crystal
My father had a unique way of working. He would visualise what you could do with a puppet or a person in a costume before working on it. The whole film is a series of experiments in hiding people in costumes and creating movements that no-one has ever seen before.
– Brian Henson
The characters were made in New York based on Froud's sketches and paintings, and were part puppet, part costume. Henson's experience of working with puppets ensured that all costumes could be easily removed from the performer within ten minutes, for the performer's comfort and safety. To try to bring a greater sense of ownership to the parts, the puppets were built by their designers, with Henson stating: 'The designers would do their own clay sculpture, mould-making, latex casting, final texturing and painting, and even their own costume-making. It makes them feel more involved, more in control'.
The mechanisms that controlled the characters' movements were principally puppetry as well as wood and wires, although there was also some radio-controlled work. Wooden keys like those of a church organ controlled violin-like strings that orchestrated the movements of a hand. Kenworthy revealed that a vast range of skills were used in order to make these creatures realistic:
To build a new generation of mechanised characters we hired jewellery makers, and people who'd been involved in prosthetic limbs, and musical instrument makers, people who were used to working on a small scale. Only on a film could you have had that group of people working together towards one common goal. They were people who were so unlike each other, and from so many different disciplines.
It took many tries for the creatures to evolve from the first sketches into their final appearance seen on screen; the Gelflings began as furry animals and gradually evolved towards a human appearance.
Living in the Castle of the Crystal, the Skeksis have ruled for 1,000 years, but only ten survive. They are described as a 'Dying race in a dying land', whose life force is replenished each day by the Ceremony of the Sun, where light from the sun is filtered through their Crystal.
The Skeksis' appearance was inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins, and were performed by an operator inside the body moving the creature's head and beak, equipped with a television monitor to see their performance. Three other puppeteers moved the eyes and mouth with joysticks and bicycle brakes attached to cables. As there were ten Skeksis to begin with (although the Emperor dies almost instantly), some of the deadly sins were used twice while new ones were invented for other characters.
Froud described them with the words: 'The Skeksis have a predatory glare. They are part-reptile, part-predatory bird and part-dragon too.'
'The Mystics, on the other hand, are a gentle race, and are part-old wizard, part-strange animal' said Froud. These four-armed chanting hippies with beatnik haircuts are peaceful and docile. They spend much of the film on a journey to the Castle of the Crystal. At peace with the world around them, they are almost incapable of action.
In the film, Jen believes that he is last Gelfling, with the rest of his race killed by Skeksis to prevent the fulfilment of the prophecy. Gelflings have a form of touch-telepathy called dream-fasting, although it seems that Gelflings who have dream-fasted can tell when the other is in danger. Female Gelflings have wings, which can be used for gliding rather than flying.
The design of the Gelflings changed the most in the pre-production of the film, evolving from an animal to human appearance in order to make Kira look right. Not only are puppets used as the Gelflings, they are also played by people in costume in long shots.
The Podlings are a sentient race that is often enslaved by the Skeksis, who hypnotise them into becoming mindless servants and steal their vital essence. In the film the Podlings do not speak English, instead an invented language inspired by eastern European tongues was used. The look of the Podlings was based on potatoes, in order to suggest that they grow naturally from the soil.
Giant half-beetle, half-crab soldiers, the Garthim are the henchmen who obey the Skeksis' commands and enforce their rule. The Garthim costumes themselves were made from articulated fibreglass, and weighed over 70lb (32kg) each. Consequently the actors were given special racks they could use to take the weight off their shoulders between takes.
Swift four-legged animals, the Landstriders were created after Brian Froud spotted clown Hugh Spight turn up to work wearing stilts. 'I began to wonder what you might do with four stilts and designed a creature to run like the wind'.
The character of Aughra is over 1,000 years old. She is the only member of her race that we see. She is knowledgeable and wise, having built a planetarium orrery in an observatory in order to study the heavens and learn about the Great Conjunction. At first she appears to be an impartial observer, allowing events to take their course, but after the Garthim destroy her home and kidnap her, she chooses to aid the Gelflings.
These small, flying creatures are the Skeksis' eyes in the skies. By each carrying a small spy crystal, what they see can be displayed in the Dark Crystal itself, allowing the Skeksis to know what is happening in the world around them.
There are numerous unnamed creatures and vegetation, and various mixtures of the two, seen in the film. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Fizzgig, Kira's dog-like pet described as a 'friendly monster' in the end credits. Another animal is the Nebrie, which naturally lives in the jungle and is eaten by the Skeksis, as are insects known as 'crawlies'. There are also several unknown life forms found, especially in the jungle, as well as by the river that Jen and Kira traverse.
The World of The Dark Crystal
The world of The Dark Crystal, especially the jungle and swamp that Jen traverses, is multi-layered and textured. Objects that at first glance appear to be plants or inanimate move when least expected. Everywhere the viewer looks, the land is full of life, which in turn makes the film itself feel vibrant. This means that there is always something unexpected to see in the background or foreground.
Although Jen travels to the Castle of the Crystal via Aughra's home and the Podlings' village seeing swamps and jungles, the Mystics take a more direct route. Their journey takes them through scenery that looks similar to that of Dartmoor, the home of conceptual artist Brian Froud.
Jim Henson worked hard at crafting the look and feel of the world in which the film The Dark Crystal is set, and hoped that an actual story would evolve from there. This perhaps explains how the look of the film, the tremendous visual detail and appearance of each frame is simply stunning, but sadly the story itself does not quite match up.
One of the film's novel ideas is that the main hero stays ignorant for most of the film about pretty much everything that is going on. He knows that he is on an important quest, but not what the quest involves, when it needs to be done, or how to do it. As a concept this is fine in theory. In practice, continuously hearing monologues from the main character informing the audience that he does not know what is going on or what he is supposed to be doing inadvertently gives the impression that the film itself is not really sure of what is happening either. This is not the case, but sadly the impression remains.
A long time ago with one ring to rule them all far, far away?
There is no denying that the story is a fairly blatant mix of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars3. In The Lord of the Rings, a small hobbit must take the One Ring to the home of his enemy, Mount Doom, and throw it into the volcano. In The Dark Crystal, a small Gelfling, a cross in appearance between a hobbit and an elf, must take the one Shard to the home of his enemy, the Castle of the Crystal, and place it into the Dark Crystal itself, which is suspended above a shaft leading down to molten lava. Aughra's role is similar to that of either elves Elrond or Galadriel, with the nine living but decayed Skeksis representing the nine Nazgûl.
Another key influence is the Star Wars saga, obvious from the very first line. The narrator informing us that the film is set in 'another world, another time in the age of wonder' reminds us of Star Wars' famous 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...' The Dark Crystal was made between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with Aughra, a character played by Frank Oz, very similar to Yoda, also played by Frank Oz4. The Podlings' home appears almost identical to Yoda's. Like the Star Wars universe's Force, everything in the world of the Dark Crystal is either on the Good or Dark Side. The swamp Kira and Jen traverse is similar to Dagobah. Jen on the three-sunned planet definitely reminds us of Luke Skywalker beneath the two-sunned planet of Tatooine.
As The Dark Crystal and the Star Wars films share talent, it was perhaps inevitable that Star Wars would be influenced by The Dark Crystal in turn. The death of over 900-year-old Yoda is played almost identically to the death of over 1,000-year-old Mystic UrSu. Both Jen and Luke refer to their mentor as 'Master', and both fade in a similar fashion, leaving their bedding to slowly sink down to where their body had lain. Following this, it was perhaps inevitable that the next film Jim Henson would direct, Labyrinth, would be produced by George Lucas, creator of Star Wars.
The film is essentially a metaphor for sex and birth. The Shard represents the sperm, the Dark Crystal is an egg. Jen's quest is to travel through the jungle, avoid the crabs and go down below in order to enter the castle through a dark, damp tunnel. Jen then ascends a shaft to reach the Crystal. Jen mounts the Crystal at the time of the Conjunction climax, inserting his Shard inside. This results in an orgasmic explosion in which the castle's desolate, sterile walls explode, revealing an abundant shining jewel beneath. The previously-barren surrounding land is suddenly lush, luxuriant and fertile. Following the merging of the Mystics and Skeksis, a new race, the UrSkeks, are born.
The film relies heavily on internal monologue and much of the dialogue from the Chancellor is a series of high-pitched 'Hmmm's, which quickly irritates. The theme of harmony and balance is also heavily pushed. Just as for each Skeksis there is an equal and opposite Mystic, so Kira is revealed to be linked with Jen, a part of him.
Most of The Dark Crystal's weaknesses were identified and do not occur in Henson's next film Labyrinth. Audiences watching The Dark Crystal are uncertain of what the film's goal is and the precise timescale involved. In Labyrinth, the audience knows precisely what the aim is and the exact length of time Sarah has to achieve this goal.
Since the film's release rumours of a sequel occasionally surface, although nothing has been made to date.
A novelisation entitled The Dark Crystal – A fantasy adventure was written by ACH Smith, who later novelised Labyrinth. This is 176 pages long and expands the background details shown in the film. In it, the race of Mystics are known as urRu and speak a different language to Jen. The planet is called Thra, and the living essence that SkekTek the Skeksis scientist extracts from the Podlings is called 'vliya'. The race of combined Mystics and Skeksis are called urSkeks, and originally there were 18 of them.
The novelisation reveals that Aughra was originally a hermaphrodite, although her male parts have 'gone rotten', leaving her female. She also mentions that she saw the last Great Conjunction inside a mountain that has been transformed into the Castle of the Crystal, and looking at the crystal cost her an eye.
The Shard behaves like a compass, pointing the way to the Dark Crystal. There is more internal politics between the Skeksis, with the Chamberlain, General and Ritual-Master all manoeuvring to take the throne. The Podlings are called pod people.
The film score was by Trevor Jones, a prolific composer who would return to work with Henson again on Labyrinth. For the soundtrack, Jones used an 18th Century double-flageolet5 to represent Jen's double flute and also used other unusual instruments such as the crumhorn6 to give the film a distinctive sound.
- The Power Ceremony
- The Storm
- The Mystic Master Dies
- The Funerals; Jen's Journey
- The Skeksis Duel
- The Pod Dance
- Love Theme
- Gelfling Song
- The Gelfling Ruins
- The Landstrider Journey
- The Great Conjunction