Friday, March 09, 2012

The Films of 1982: The Dark Crystal

"Another World. Another Time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good...until the Crystal cracked. A single piece was lost, a shard of the Crystal. Then strife began and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics..."

-          Voice-over narration from The Dark Crystal (1982)

Thus begins The Dark Crystal, the remarkable Jim Henson fantasy released theatrically in December of 1982. Simply stated, The Dark Crystal is a production of vibrant color, epic scope, and fascinating creations the likes of which the movies had never before witnessed...not in over a hundred years of cinematic history. I count The Dark Crystal as one of the most dazzling films ever made in terms of visuals (equaled only, perhaps, by Cameron's Avatar [2009]).

But what remains so amazing about The Dark Crystal thirty years later is that, unlike the aforementioned Avatar, there's nary a human being in sight as reference or grounding point for this adventure.  Rather, the Henson film transports us to an absolutely alien world, complete unto itself.  This mesmerizing and daring vision arrives under the creative auspices of conceptual designer Brian Froud, production designer Harry Lange, scenarist David Odell, and co-directors Frank Oz and Henson.  Each deserves kudos for going where no film production had gone before.

While the film’s narrative is abundantly familiar -- a textbook resurrection of the Campbell Monomyth, right down to the presence of a “Chosen One” (Jen the Gelfling) selected to undertake a dangerous quest -- The Dark Crystal nonetheless thrives because it transports us to a planet of living forests alongside remarkable beasts and beings such as the Landstriders, the Garthim, Podlings, Crystal Bats, Gelflings, Mystics and, last but not least, the remarkable and disgusting Skeksis.  It is a cinematic world of richness, depth, and much so that the precise details of the admittedly familiar narrative matter little.

Despite The Dark Crystal’s visual lushness, critics were generally unkind regarding the film.  Vincent Canby concluded that the film was without charm as well as interest.”  Meanwhile, a reviewer at the Reno Gazette-Journal, described The Dark Crystal as an “overblown puppet show” while critic Ken Hanke called it “Tolkien with puppets.”

What seems genuinely overlooked in terms of the mainstream response to the film is The Dark Crystal’s unique leitmotif: a kind of yin-and-yang approach to life.  

Specifically, the planet featured in the film is “fractured” into two opposing, extreme camps, Mystics and Skeksis.  Each camp relies heavily on thousand-year old rituals, but finds "no satisfaction" in the rote repetition of them.  And that’s because each side is incomplete, flawed, and even bored.  The Skeksis are rather overtly flawed of course, giant vulture-like creatures interested only in avarice and their own unhealthy appetites.  But the slow and deliberate Mystics are flawed as well -- too slow and contemplative to really live life to the fullest -- and only the “Great Conjunction” can heal the planet and bring the two races together.

In an increasingly postmodern world, it’s easy to gaze at this “fracturing” of wholeness in The Dark Crystal as the filmmakers' comment on the partisan nature of life, where objective reality and scientific fact are themselves subordinate to ideological belief.  

Virtually alone among movie fantasies, The Dark Crystal concerns healing and completeness, and the idea that to be "whole," we must join with and "absorb" the “darker” part of ourselves...even if we don’t want to.  For as bad as the Skeksis surely are, their percentage of the equation cannot be absent in the totality of identity.  What we see embodied in the film, then, is a relatively realistic and integrated view about mankind.  Like these alien creatures, we are not without a dark side, and the dark side even has a place in our gestalt, but we must decide how to harness it appropriately.

I mentioned postmodernism above, and that's because, in some fashion, The Dark Crystal appears to subtly comment on that movement in the arts.  In particular, theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested that society has become so reliant on models and maps that it has lost contact with the real world that preceded those models and maps.  What we see in The Dark Crystal is actually a critique of the models and maps of our lives, here showcased in the religious rituals of the Mystics and the court rituals of the Skeksis.  

As I noted above, these models and maps no longer provide "satisfaction" for practitioners and that is because they are no longer connected to present-day reality.  If The Dark Crystal concerns "wholeness," it is also about interconnectedness; the interconnectedness of man and his environment.    Given this idea, the re-assertion of the old Monomyth story line plays like a restoration of the "modern"  and objective in an increasingly "postmodern" and relativistic world.   Indeed, the straight-forward, unencumbered, distinctively anti-"meta" narrative in The Dark Crystal is like some delicious antidote to PoMo theory.

If postmodernism champions the idea that ethics and truth are subjective, The Dark Crystal rejects that notion, and finds comfort and even the promise of paradise in the idea that universal truths about our connectedness can save the day, and the planet.  The Skeksis and Mystics each dwell in their little, separate, inward-looking worlds, replete with rituals that reinforce their incomplete visions of reality.  In completing his quest and making the dark crystal whole again, Jen actually remakes the world as it is meant to be: a thing of universal beauty.

Hold her to you, for she is part of you, as we all are part of each other.

The Dark Crystal opens as the next "Great Conjunction" of three stars draws near. The Mystics and the Skeksis -- two sides of the same coin but splintered into two "opposite" race -- await this cosmic coming together with vastly different emotions. The Skeksis fear it, for prophecy indicates that a Gelfling will heal the schism caused by the shattering of the Crystal, thus ending the Skeksis reign. In fact, the Skeksis are so afraid of the prophecy that they murdered all the Gelflings to prevent a "Chosen One" from aborting their rule.

On the other hand, the gentle Mystics look forward to their eventual re-unification, and know that if the Gelfling fails now, evil will reign in the land for another thousand eternity of darkness.

On the day that the elderly Skeksis Emperor and his opposite number among the Mystics finally dies, young Jen, a Gelfling, is informed of his role in the scheme of things by his dying master. He sets off on a dangerous quest to find the shard, the missing piece of the Crystal that can heal the land.

His first stop takes him to Aughra's home in the mountains, where he locates the shard and escapes from the grasp of the skittering, clicking, hard-shelled foot-soldiers of the Skeksis, the Garthim

Later, Jen meets the only other surviving Gelfing, a female named Kira and her pet, Fizzgigg. She joins his quest, and together they make for the Skeksis castle, where the Dark Crystal awaits.

But treachery is just around the corner as an outcast Skeksis, the Chamberlain plots for a triumphant return to the new Emperor's Court...

“What was sundered and undone shall be whole - the two made one.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Dark Crystal is that every one of the film’s many creations had to actually exist to be filmed. 

By that, I mean the creatures weren't generated by a few deft keystrokes on a computer and then added to a live-action sequence later on.  Instead, these colorful, breathing, wondrous things -- the denizens of this unique world --- had to be designed, built, wrangled and performed. They had to be a real physical presence on the sets. They had to be managed for the camera.  The filmmakers had to contend with putting these creatures out on location in some instances, in the rain and elements.  

By and large, modern digital effects do away with such challenges, and with a lot of traditional movie magic and artistry too.  When you pause to think about the making of this film, you can truly detect what a labor of love The Dark Crystal must have been.  There's ample reward for such labor too.  Whereas digital monsters often appear to (unintentionally) defy gravity, or seem somehow separate from their environs, the wondrous creatures of The Dark Crystal actually appear to inhabit their world, to be affected by gravity, sunlight, water and the elements.  

First and foremost, then, The Dark Crystal must be acknowledged as a state-of-the-art fantasy film, one wherein the visuals are truly breathtaking.  I'm horrified and embarrassed for my profession that so many  critics sought to diminish this ambitious film by writing off the film's creations as mere puppets, or by invoking the specter of Miss Piggy in their reviews.  Talk about not meeting a film half-way, or acknowledging the artistry put up on screen...

Even beyond the special effects, The Dark Crystal contextualizes its hero's journey story in unique fashion, as I've written above.  The creators of the film make a great effort -- both in word and imagery -- to countenance the theme of a world split down the middle, and suffering for that horrible disunion. 

In terms of visualization, we see this theme repeatedly. For when a Skeksis dies (like the Emperor), the same thing happens to his opposite number among the gentle Mystics. A bloody hand on a Skeksis results in a wound on the hand of a Mystic, and so on. 

This is a literalization of the notion that united we stand, divided we fall. And also that an action against an enemy may actually rebound and hurt an ally. In the United States today, we often hear how our citizens are "more divided" than ever; how the Red State vs. Blue State conflict is the prevailing dynamic. Yet what The Dark Crystal skillfully makes clear is that all races on this faraway planet (like all Americans, or all human beings for that matter...) actually share the same fate. As the "angel"-like creature at the film's climax (the reunification of the Skeksis/Mystics) informs Jen, we are all a part of each other.  For better (like the Mystics?) or worse (like the Skeksis).

Delightfully, this unique theme is not treated in a heavy-handed fashion, and instead the filmmakers primarily make their point visually. Again, production design is critically important in any reading of this film. The Mystics - gentle, wise creatures - are adorned in loose fitting robes, and seen in sandy earth tones. Their realm is of the "earth," an abode cut out of stone and clay. They seem to have few possessions and are hence not material creatures. They represent conventional "good" traits like humility, modesty, love of nature and environment.  They are slow, deliberate and poised, but also old and somehow drained, exhausted.

In contrast, the Skeksis represent the dark side of humanity. Greed, avarice, malice. Their territory looks like a strip-mined wasteland, save for the castle. The Skeksis dress in elaborate, ostentatious robes of ornate design and bold color (crimson, gold, purple, and orange) and surround themselves with material wealth: giant hanging tapestries, high-backed banquet chairs, wide cushioned beds, and so forth. These material possessions are so important to the Skeksis that the creatures literally appear hunched over by the weight of their cloaks and the elaborate, bony gear they wear over their spines.

Above all else, these creatures, who resemble nothing so much as giant buzzards, value material possessions. That's why it is the ultimate punishment in this society to be stripped of robes, as the Chamberlain is stripped after his failed bid for leadership.  When shorn of his costuming and place in Skeksis society, Chamberlain is revealed to be nothing but a scrawny, bony creation with bad posture. The clothes make the man (or monster).

The  Mystics and Skeksis are mirror images of one another, and the film showcases brilliantly this idea of reflection.  When the Skeksis Emperor dies...he rots.  When the Mystic leader dies, he transcends.  Where the Skeksis Emperor clings to life, the Mystic...lets go.  Where the surviving Skeksis are all about taking away power from the dying Emperor (thinking of themselves), the Mystics think about honoring he who has passed away.  And yet, again, remember the yin-and-yang.  Both "natures" are essential for wholeness, according to the film.  We need our inner Skeksis as much as our inner Mystic, I suppose you might say.  The Skeksis, for instance, seem to understand the imperative of self-preservation, at least.

One could also make the argument, I suppose, that The Dark Crystal concerns a class society where the rich (the Skeksis) lord it over the poor (the Podlings, who resemble  nothing so much as Russian peasants...), literally draining their vital life energies to maintain their own existence.  If you interpret the film in this fashion, it seems even more relevant and interesting in today's political environment.   The Skeksis are vulture capitalists who are actually vultures.

But thematic insights aside, The Dark Crystal makes full, dynamic use of the rectangular movie frame, and in many gorgeous compositions the camera stands far enough back for the audience to gain a real sense of scale. The view of the Mystics on the march to the Castle -- a sun rise behind them -- is merely one example of the film's fully enunciated ability to capture and evoke a genuine sense of (alien)  place. 

Accordingly, The Dark Crystal is a movie that lives up to the often-utilized adjective, "wondrous." . Aughra's mountaintop residence, replete with a gigantic, metallic, spinning machine of a hundred parts, is a gorgeous bit of arcane design. The notorious banquet scene involving the Skekses is a truly disgusting set-piece, revealing the appetite of these creatures (and setting the stage, a year later, for Jabba the Hutt's appetites, one might guess...). And Kira's beautiful, overgrown forest is a splendid, lively creation...a place of overflowing life, where the very shrubbery itself seems to breathe.

Ultimately, The Dark Crystal succeeds beyond expectations because even in the midst of this utterly alien, utterly convincing landscape, the story speaks to a crucial aspect of human nature. Aren't we all split, in some senses, right down the middle, just like the Skeksis and the Mystics? Hoping for the best, yet often clinging to the worst angels of our nature? 

This is a movie that "crystallizes" that dichotomy in an artistic fashion, and the result is a rare fantasy film of beauty, vision and epic scope.  I fully realize that many fans love the Lord of the Rings films with tremendous ardor, but I'll take The Dark Crystal over that trilogy any day.  For one thing, The Dark Crystal is less noisy (and admirably brief.)  For another, The Dark Crystal features a great villain in the Skeksis (as opposed to an amorphous, floating eyeball..).  And finally, The Dark Crystal miraculously makes us examine human nature when there is not even a human being on screen.

They don't make 'em like The Dark Crystal anymore, especially in the CGI age.  But perhaps they should.

1 comment:

  1. True story. Saw this film with my Mom and Sister. Behind us was a kid there with his Dad. The kid was a little older than me, and really, really did not want to be there. He didn't want to see some kind of "stupid puppet movie." When the film was over, you couldn't get him out of the theater! Now that was movie magic at it's best.