We’re taking a brief hiatus from watching Ancient Aliens to celebrate something that is truly spectacular, and a surprise after so many years. The Dark Crystal returns to the screen, anew, with a new series put together in partnership between Netflix and Disney, in a deal that presumably precedes the streaming service that Disney has begun, just recently. Of course, with the exceptional attention-to-detail in every scene, and the elaborate puppetry and choreography of such a magnificent work, one can only assume this has been in production in some fashion or another since the original film arrived in theatres back in 1982, when I was just a wee lad. I watched this film for the first time when I was far too young for it. I was at my grandparent’s house in either New York or New Jersey. I’m not sure which house it was in. I remember it, though. Many, many children watched this film when they were too young for it. It was a movie about fantasy puppets, from the same people who made Sesame Street for decades, and goofy slapstick variety shows with puppets. Fantasy, at the time, was kids’ stuff. And, it is a kids’ movie in part because it is starring juveniles of the Gelfling species, and their furry dog-like creature, as they take on the big and scary monsters that hide in the closets of their fantastic world.
But, it is not a film that children should see, mostly. Older children, perhaps. But, really the age that I was watching this film, four or five or six, it was the stuff that fuels nightmares. The rich and gorgeous tapestry of details and haunting music, and the desolation of such an apocalyptic tale, where only two remain of a whole world of cultures and civilizations, was perhaps too rich for my brain to process. I dreamed in this world many times. When I was living near Albuquerque, New Mexico, in kindergarten or first grade, I had dreams about a lost Gelfling civilization that had been hiding in the desert for a thousand years and more. I had dreams about the world where so few remain in it, and nature swallows, and the demons of the world remain, hungry for more. It is such a simple and strange story, really. There is a magical crystal that was damaged by corrupted higher beings, who split into their two natures. The wicked and selfish Skeksis on the one hand, and the gentle and wise Mystics on the other. The Skeksis attempt to live forever, forever young and vigorous and vain. They destroy everything to do it – everything – and corrupt everything they touch with their will to power and more life. Meanwhile, the Mystics wait for what they know must come: a Great Conjunction when the crystal can be healed, along with them. The Gelflings were prophecied to heal the crystal – “By Gelfling hand or else by none…!” and the race of Gelflings was crucial to the extension of vigorous youth by the contemptible Skeksis.
Jen and Kira stumble into each other, pure and gentle Gelflings, each raised by kind and wholesome adopted families of another race. They find the crystal shard, sneak into the castle, and one sacrifices herself to secure the prophecy’s fulfillment. The Skeksis and the Mystics merge into one race, their divided nature healed with the crystal, and resurrect the fallen Gelfling. They encourage Jen and Kira to be together, in love, alluding to the resurrection of the Gelfling species and society from these two, simple souls like Adam and Eve.
It’s such a simple story. The dialog, as well, is clunky and strange. Originally it was intended for the film to be presented in fantasy languages, enhancing the alienation of the viewer at what they see before them. I’ve seen clips of this on-line, and the Skeksis scenes work better in their original Klingon/Egyptian. In fact, it feels like every line is a sort of dub from some other language. The voiceover doesn’t work, either, except in the context of a children’s film where little kids need extra guidance to grasp the emotions in the smooth lines of the Gelfling’s puppet faces. At some point, some brave filmmaker will put out an edition closer to the original vision and embrace the strangeness of the film, the otherworldly and disorienting nature of it. Still, the best moments, like when Kira sits on the ruined throne and gazes back at the viewer, or when Aughra’s Orrery reveals itself spinning and turning from her high observatory, or when Jen first encounters the friendly and musical Podlings that had adopted Kira, all exist in a world without words, where something timeless and old echoes inside of the mind, requiring no verbal explanation, almost defying the power of words to explain the simple moment presented. The ancient world spins, with old powers caught in a web of prophecy, and the best of Thra is not it’s highest echelons of noble and wise and intelligent races – for even the Mystics are part of a lie of omission, and Aughra knows she is a bit player of a mystery that is not her own – but the lowest of the world: the brave Fizzgigs and homey warmth of podlings and the sudden and overwhelming sense of love that two strangers can feel in a moment, when they touch and their whole lives flash before each other’s eyes.
It’s a beautiful film to watch, with every scene and shadow glistening and growing and moving. Even now, the puppetry is astonishing to behold. The battle of the striders and the garthim is still so impressive as a sheer feat of choreography. I can only imagine the amount of planning that went into every frame of the film, where even the corners are alive and beautiful and richly-detailed. It should be said, again, that the script is a little bit of a blunt weapon of story. The story, itself, is stronger than the script, and echoes deep enough in the mind that it is easy to gloss over the words, themselves, and just think about the echoes of them – those deep echoes where story and imagery and performance merge into something familiar despite its’ total newness. Imagine 1982, when nuclear Armageddon hangs over people’s heads, and cinema is real and Chariots of Fire, a forgettable inspirational sports movie about running marathons will win Best Picture, and children’s films are mostly nonsense, cheaply made and thrown at the audience without skill or care. Star Wars is probably the coolest game around, and even their mythic storytelling is wrapped in strictly human concerns. This… Thing Arrives. It’s beautiful and strange and revels in strangeness, and tells a story of desolation and purity without a single gesture towards humans perceived universal centrality. It’s Star Wars with only the aliens, and the evil empire won it all and fell into decadent gluttony long, long ago. There’s never been anything else like it, and I thought it would never happen again, until I learned a new series was made set in this astonishingly decadent feast of a world. We’ll be going in depth about the new episodes, soon, but if you haven’t seen the original film, please do. Knowing what comes paints everything that happens in the new series in such a dark and anguished light. We know, from the first time we see the cities and civilizations moving and dancing, that everyone of them will die, and their whole way of life has been constructed upon a lie that will soon be laid naked before the corrupting, selfish nature of the Skeksis, who will quite nearly succeed to the very edge of the end of the world, and none of the heroes of the new series will be there in the end, when Jen drives the shard of the crystal home.
I’ve seen this film and I’ve seen this film and I’ve seen this film, over and over, across the years of my life. It’s something I return to, and find inspiration inside. It’s something that calls to the world of dreams in ways that few films of its time attempted. It is wholly original. There is nothing like it on screen or in print. Share it with little ones who are too young for it. It will scare them, but fears are part of life, and they may even grow up to write fantasy novels.