Some of you may be wondering what my favorite movie of all time is, or if I even have a favorite film. Well I do have a favorite film, and this is it. It beats all the other films I have seen so far in my life, by a mile. Most, if not all, fantasy films wish they had the amount of originality, creativity, philosophical depth, work, effort, and passion put into this film. I have yet to see one that even comes close to this (that includes The Lord of the Rings films).
That glorious opening music. The artwork and practical effects. The epic feel of it all. I find it difficult to comprehend how film-goers can’t hold some kind of admiration for this film, much less enjoyment. The creativity shown on display here is second to none in the history of film-making. This may be a Jim Henson movie, but this is no lighthearted Muppet movie.
What’s it made of?
It begins with some of the best fantasy music you’re ever going to hear in a film. There is not one sequence in this film that isn’t accompanied by a score that feels nothing short of amazing and epic, much less in place. There isn’t one moment that lacks music where one would wish it was playing. For the duration that Jen is exploring the forest, the silence adds to the paranoia of being watched, the fear of what he might find. When Jen and Kira are exploring the caverns beneath the crystal castle, the environment encapsulates the isolation and the dread of being surrounded by menacing darkness. There’s the notes played by the peaceful Mystics are calm and soothing; as is something about their chants, with some power behind it. The festive atmosphere of the pod people. And then just the music of the film itself. Encapsulating the feel of setting out on an epic journey when Jen sets out. The evoking of seeing something grand when we see the planetary movement mechanism in Aughra’s home. The dread further induced when the Gartham show up. The music couldn’t have been done any better.
And who is responsible for this blissful sound that graces our ears? None other than Trevor Jones, whose other major film highlight for containing some of the greatest scores ever put on film is The Last of the Mohicans, another film favorite of mine. In addition, he also composed the music for Labyrinth (of course), Runaway Train, Angel Heart, Excalibur, Dark City, and In the Name of the Father.
Regarding the practical effects, I have to start with the Gartham. Oh man, these are some of the scariest freaky looking creatures I’ve ever seen in my life. These things would make Charles Bronson shit his pants. Crustacean looking creatures that seem part lobster, part shrimp, part crab. One of the greatest creature designs in film history. Designed by Brian Froud, who spent five years working on the costume designs for this film. His only other major works in terms of art design were found in Labyrinth (of course), and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (yet another one of my favorite films). And to think that Studio Ghibli almost got a hold of that one. If anyone was to do a remake or modern adaptation of The Dark Crystal, Studio Ghibli would be the best option. Hell, in Japan, The Dark Crystal scored big at the box office (the same can’t be said of America, who was all gooey eyed over E.T. at the time).
The set designs themselves are every bit as outstanding as everything previously mentioned. There aren’t just floors, clothing, and walls to walk beside and thrones to sit on. Oh no, there are small intricate details carved into the floors, into the walls, carved upon the sand, welded into metallic objects worn by several characters. Patterns emerge if one pays attention closely, the triangles and circle within the triangle, and circles within those triangles, and on and on, and how it all connects to the 3 planets for the great conjunction. The moon shaped staffs. The mechanical solar system model in Aughra’s home. The made up letters and language that are embedded in the floors of certain rooms within the structures. The film is deceptively deep with the amount of lore hidden below the surface of the film, something viewers can catch onto if they look close enough. It’s something on par with The Lord of the Rings, though the film isn’t in as grand of scale or length to show as much of this world as Lord of the Rings does with its world. There is much to ponder upon with the things you only glimpse within the film. It’s all in the details, something only a genius like Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Brian Froud (a dream team come true) could come up with.
And speaking of lore-building, there’s also a brief moment where Kira is sitting on the throne in the ruins, implying that Gelflings used to rule, may have once been a great society, that she feels a small calling to be a queen, like her ancestors were, just as how Jen felt a calling (some music) that led himself into the ruins. A forgotten world, a forgotten time, in the age of wonder.
Plus just about everything was built to scale. The only thing not built to scale in the film (some landscape paintings aside) is the actual crystal castle itself. That in of itself is a major feat.
And then there’s the cinematography itself, done by Oswald Morris, the last film he would ever work on as cinematographer. He worked on The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, The Man Who Would Be King, Fiddler on the Roof, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Lolita, and A Farewell to Arms. This film is arguably his greatest achievement as a cinematographer, so at least he ended his career on a high note. Aside from just about every shot in the movie, the scenes with the mystics journeying through the land stand out in a good way. The vast background paintings add to the fantastic feel of the film.
What are the themes?
There is an underlying theme of power and control that can be surprisingly relevant to today’s society. The Skekses use the power of the dark crystal to brainwash and mind control the masses, parasitically thriving upon them in their dumbed down state. There are the mystics who don’t use the crystal at all, but rely on nature for control, which gives them wisdom and understanding. Wisdom and knowledge of nature is a power in of itself, as demonstrated when they use those powers to make the fearsome Gartham powerless. The Gartham, which represent the power of the dark crystal. They rely completely on it, and are literally nothing without it. Something born from such a power used for evilness, as strong as it may be (something capable of wiping out species mind you) becomes nothing in the face of those who use the power of nature. So there is a subtle environmentalism theme going on, which is difficult to catch onto because what is normally obvious to the viewer in terms of being a metaphor for technology seems like something that may exist naturally in this world. It’s all part of the mystery of the world.
However, it is shown that relying only on nature, or only on technology, is not the best thing to do. As strong as each power can make each race that only relies on one end of the power spectrum, those races have been slowly dying for the past thousand years (the thousand years being a semblance of Indian religion). Regardless of the good intentions of those who don’t rely on dark technology, it is not enough. By the end of the movie, it is clear that these sides must come together, as they once were. Harmony can be achieved by technology and nature, a good path and come from such a union. There is a way for technology to be used for good if used for the right reasons in the right hands. Should there be discord and disagreement, there with be a violent separation between beings (the population), which will be bad for everyone. An imperial use for technology is not the same, nor as good, as opposed to a humble use.
Duality is something that must also be considered. As stated earlier, the Skekses and Mystics eventually meld together, each individual mystic melding into their Skekse counterpart, to restore their long ago state of godlike beings. Two made one. The evilness, then, of the Skekses and their use of power is not entirely evil in of itself. Evilness is an illusion. Their use of power is one side of the same coin, the other side being the mystics use of power. When two are made one, it is implied that they are capable of having great power and responsibility to use power in each way. Their wisdom shall let them know what the best way to use such power is under specific circumstances. In addition, both races initially had different approaches to death. During the first act, when the Skekse emperor is dying, he remains fearful of death, struggling to stay alive ’till his last breath, having violent spasms in an attempt to reject death’s embrace for as long as possible. But then there are the mystics, who accept that death is the natural order of things, and embrace it, and go through it peacefully. The joining together of the two sends a message that a fusion of the two approaches to death must be considered. Death is a fearful thing, and steps probably should be taken to avoid it. But if it is meant to be, then accept it.
One could consider the other interpretation, an alternative to Dualism. That the Skekses are evil, representing selfishness, genocidal natures, enslavement of the masses, a physical form that indulges in the wants of the body (encapsulated by the dinner scene with the Skekses). The Mystics, on the other hand, are more spiritual by nature, displaying elements of Christianity and Buddhism with their pilgrimage to bring peace back to the world and their habit of creating sand mandalas. Their state of enlightenment contrasts with that of the Skeksies, who also have traits of ignorance, which leads to fear of a race they deem threatening, which leads them to carry out genocide. Sound familiar? Once the mystics arrive, the “spirit” fuses with the “body”, giving form to heaven-like beings who are somewhat transparent and give off a white glow, and eventually ascend to the heavens. A somewhat Christ metaphor, indicating that the spirit must overcome the wills and desires of the body in order for a needed ascension to occur for the greater good.
A key factor in considering both views is the consequences of death between those two species. The Skekses are evil, so they should be killed off, right? Well the film quickly hushes any cheers that would go on when a villain dies, as when a Skekse gets his, so does a Mystic, who disappears in a brief fiery blaze them moment the skeskie counterpart is killed off. When a Garthim is killed, so is a Landstrider. The film never allows for a chance for viewers to cheer at the death of anyone, or anything. Killing is bad, killing is not the answer. The desire to see enemies killed off as encouraged in most films, both for kids and adults, is vanquished in that instant. To have a satisfying resolution, bloodshed isn’t the answer. Peaceful resolution is. The fusion between the two species is a metaphor for resolving large world-shattering problems with peaceful negotiation, with compromise. This further supports dualism theme, an Eastern religious viewpoint.
So if dualism is to be accepted, then that implies that there is a flaw to both sides. It’s obvious what the flaws of the Skekses are, but what about the mystics? Well, they move slow, live largely in an environment absent of greenery (though granted they leave near greenery), and seem unable to accomplish that much. In fact, they even seem like old exhausted creatures, going along with their snail’s pace. Their slow, spiritual, and meditative lives aren’t enough to make changes in the world, even though they are changes that they know must be done. They rely upon those more physically capable than they are for the task to be done.
Another interesting thing about the Mystics vs. the Skeksies. The Mystics all look and act the same, while the Skeksies try to look as different from each other as possible in their voice, mannerisms, clothing, personality, etc. It’s a clash of individualism vs. collectivism, the desire to be together and act as one vs. the desire to be independent. Now, you could easily say that collectivism is portrayed as being the superior morally good choice, but don’t forget that the whole point of dualism is that two sides must be one in order to be complete and fulfilled, and much closer to perfection. In other words, there are pros and cons to both individualism and collectivism, that neither are perfect in of themselves. Yet another layer this movie has to it.
It is also worth noting that the protagonist of the film, Jen, a youthful individual is the one who heals the crystal, allowing the union of the two races to be possible. In essence, this drives forward the idea that it is the young generation, with knowledge granted from their elders, and experiences with their friends, to fix the world, to repair the mistakes made by those in power many years ago, mistakes still be carried out by those in power in his time. There is more going on here beneath the surface of the usual “lone young hero must venture forth and save the world” plot.
The whole duality theme can also be a metaphor for love. The skekses, the mystics, love thy enemy, because they are a part of each other. Similar to how Jen and Kira, while they more or less lived alone without any other gelflings, find that they don’t want to be apart once they learn of each other’s existence. It’s as if they found a piece of themselves that had been missing this entire time.
There’s a perfect moment that encapsulates this division and bringing together all in one perfect shot:
Jen to the left side, Kira on the right, the dark crystal between them both, with the Skeksies below. The crystal acts as a barrier, keeping them apart, much like the the crystal’s current state is what keeps the world broken and in disarray, the mystics being separate from the skeksies. The desire to fill this void, to fix what is broken, the desire to be whole again, is what drives everything to this point, Jen and Kira, the skeksies and the mystics.
And amidst all this there’s the Garthim to consider, empty shells of existence that only exist because of emptiness. How can they live in such a state? By being fueled by an unnatural power. The power that gives them form and a lifeforce, the dark power of the crystal, a metaphor. Being broken creates monsters. Separation, the loss of love, creates destruction and hate. Jen felt this after Kira’s village was destroyed, so he tosses the shard of the crystal in anger. And again at Augra’s home, when the Garthim show up, it’s no coincidence that they destroy the Anvil of Eternity, that machine that shows the movement of the planets in their system. It’s also no coincidence that we see Augra toss a planetary object at them. This emptiness and separation causes nothing but destruction, a universal truth.
Even when Jen restores the crystal, things are destroyed when changes happen. The Garthim are shown to be nothing but shells of emptiness. The castle appears to be falling apart. Kira lies dead. Despite all the change going on, whether it be for better or worse, whether it will mean his and everyone else’s death or not, Jen doesn’t care. All he cares about it that he lost Kira. He is broken, now that he realizes he can’t live without her, further emphasizing the dualism philosophy. Nothing matters if you are alone.
The best thing about all this? These are themes not dealt out heavy-handedly. They are done subtly, without any fancy speeches, and the film can be watched and enjoyed without consciously knowing that such themes are present.
So aside from the theme, production quality and all that, what do I actually think about the moments that are in the film? Well, I’ve already mentioned how badass the Gartham are. But a second runner-up for best creature in the movie would have to be the Landstriders. These giant four-legged creature are awesome, and can kick ass in a fight against the Garthem, but they can’t take on a large group that outnumbers them 4-to-1. And, man, hearing the sounds those Landstriders make when they’re being attacked by the Garthem, it kinda brings me to tears.
Fizgig is great. It’s awesome seeing that Kira has wings, and can communicate with animals which brings up some great moments where animals fight against the Skekses and Garthem. Jen is basically a typical cardboard fantasy character, regardless of his thematic implications. Kira has just a tad more character than him, but not much. The Skekses each felt more distinct and full of character than Jen and Kira. But honestly though, for a film like this, the characters fit in just fine as plain individuals living out an existence. Not every character in a film has to have some fantastic trait/personality to them. That only becomes necessary if it is a character-driven film. That is not what this is. The film’s strength and focus is in its world, its details, its philosophy, its lore.
The amount of original creature designs and number of plants and animals in the forest scene alone puts any 3 fantasy movies combined to shame.
If you find this film enjoyable enough that you want to get more out of it, seek out the unnofficial director’s cut, as well as the book The World of the Dark Crystal, written by the costume/creature designer himself, Brian Froud. That book will take you knee-deep into the lore that the film only touches upon, and let you know just how much work and effort Henson put into the creation of this world. You will be amazed at how much depth they went into writing out the details of this world, much of left was left outside of the film or only vaguely/fleetingly implied within it.
You will never find me giving a film a higher recommendation than this one. This is a film that could only have been made during that time period, and nothing like has ever been made prior to it, or after it.