The early 1980s were a bright time if you wanted to get a science fiction or fantasy film made. The resounding global box-office ka-ching made by That Franchise was still ringing in the ears of
financiers and studios everywhere and a string of similarly-themed films followed, some inspired, others derivative. One of the most interesting of these was The Dark Crystal, directed by
Jim Henson and Frank Oz and released in 1982.
Set in 'another world, another time’; the film tells the story of a troubled land. Since the three suns were last in conjunction, a thousand years before, the all-powerful dark crystal has been under
the control of the grotesque vulture-like Skeksis. Knowing that prophecy foretells their destruction at the hands of a member of the Gelfling race, the Skeksis have all but exterminated this gentle
people - but there are still a few left. One such is Jen, who has been raised in secrecy by the wise and gentle Mystics. But now conjunction approaches again and Jen must set out to restore light to the crystal, or else the world will be ruled by the Skeksis forevermore...
It sounds a fairly trite and clichéd story and, to be fair, it is. The story isn't especially inventive, and isn't helped by David Odell's script: the dialogue is mundane and unsubtle and one of the main plot revelations is telegraphed right from the very beginning. There's also very little sense of a wider world occurring beyond the characters and locations of the story, something which is surely the
hallmark of all great fantasy films.
But The Dark Crystal remains a unique film for the simple reason that it doesn't contain a single human face; every creature, every character is a puppet of some kind. Henson and Oz were, of
course, the two leading creators of the Muppets and this was their first attempt to turn their skills and those of their colleagues (principally Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, and Louise Gold) to dramatic
rather than comedic ends. And, simply judged in terms of its technical achievement, the film is stunning.
Based on concept paintings by Brian Froud, the creations range from large men-in-suits (or on stilts) monsters, to tiny glove puppet creatures. It has to be said that the designers are most
successful with the ominous and horrific, as the films' star turns are the grotesque Skeksis and the multi-limbed Mystics - the more human-like Gelflings and Podlings are less memorable and convincing.
For a two-decade-old film, the animatronics and other special techniques remain deeply impressive. So impressive, in fact that they threaten to overshadow the other strengths of the film: a majestic
score by Trevor Jones, an appropriately otherworldly atmosphere, and some effective vocal performances, particularly that of Billie Whitelaw as the seeress Aughra.
And The Dark Crystal does seem closer to That Franchise than many of its contemporaries - not in simplistic or obvious ways, either. This is probably due to the fact that it had some of the
same personnel. Producer Gary Kurtz had previous carried out the same duties on a couple of popular science-fiction films made by a Mr G. Lucas, the latter of which Frank Oz had worked on as an actor
and puppeteer (Aughra, appropriately enough, looks and behaves like the hybrid offspring of Oz's most famous creations, Miss Piggy and Yoda). There's a hint of Jabba's palace to the scenes of the
Skeksis and their castle, and one scene near the beginning uncannily anticipates an almost identical one in Return of the Jedi. The touchy-feely philosophy of the film is probably down to Henson's own
hippy roots, though.
Ultimately, though, The Dark Crystal couldn't match the success of more conventional fantasy pictures. Except in terms of the puppets themselves and their operation, it's not even up to
the narrative standard of contemporaries like Dragonslayer and Krull. But it's far more memorable than either of those. Once seen, you may not think much of it, but you'll definitely remember it.