The Dark Crystal and Why 80s Nostalgia Can Be Good

When Netflix released their teaser trailer for a prequel series to the 1982 film, The Dark Crystal, with an all-important flash of an animatronic Skeksi, I screamed. This film has been embedded into my psyche for as long as I can remember; all the way back to when I used to scream “Kamalaiah!” as I ran under a South Shields overpass when I was three. Needless to say, I’m one of the many people who is incredibly excited for this project.

It does leave the question however… what’s with the our current nostalgia for the 1980s, especially in TV and Hollywood?

Well it’s probably down to the current generation of film and TV show makers either growing up or enjoying their youth in that decade, but I feel like there may be more to it; I mean… my God the mainstream cinema of this decade has been rammed with remakes and reboots, with the likes of the Disney Corporation announcing live-action remakes of all their animated classics as well as a new Star Wars trilogy. Many of these reboots have been an enjoyable and even an incredible watch, but the lack of original output is now grating on audiences and critics alike, and that’s not even acknowledging the movies that have been straight-up insulting (yeah, you may have all have laughed at me and my plain refusal to watch Beauty and the Beast, but you’re all crying now that Mulan is being messed around with). Unfortunately, I believe that laziness and the want of a cheap buck is playing a major role in such executive decisions, with the art of the whole thing taking a backseat. But, with some of the more outstanding movies, the quality of the art communicates a real love – a misty-eyed trip down memory lane to what seem like simpler times.

Whenever I’ve been taking about all the cool films I’ve seen in the cinema, my Mam has often commented on how crap cinema was in the 70s. Now… before all you film nerds rise up in horror at such a statement, I am fully aware of how much of an important time the seventies was for film – independent and horror movies especially – but consider this: my Mam was a kid and then a teenager in the 1970s, so apart from Disney movies there wouldn’t have been many films that would attract that demographic in that decade, apart from Grease or whatever. Even so, my Mam’s claim to fame is that she saw the first Star Wars in the cinema while on a date, and funnily enough, I feel like that movie is one of the first of the Lucas/Scott/Gilliam/Spielberg movement of the 1980s which has been burnt into the minds of children of many a generation for years to come. It was these movies that ensured that as the 70s came to a close, everyone cheered up a bit and films stopped being so sepia, instead welcoming a cavalcade of colourful movies reminiscent of the 1950s, making this a new and exciting time.

There are so many movies that encapsulate the iconic fantasy and sci-fi feel of the eighties, but the most original and fantastical is The Dark Crystal, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the same guys responsible for The Muppets.

The Dark Crystal’s inception, in a way, was a bit of an accident, with the conceptual designer Brian Froud working on an unfinished script and having a misunderstanding of the film’s title, which was supposed to be ‘The Dark Chrysalis’. As a result, Froud presented a rather bamboozled Jim Henson with the concept art of a crystal, and without this simple miscommunication we may not have such a unique and epic fantasy adventure.

The setting is completely alien: “another world, another time, in the Age of Wonder.” A planet enjoys bounty and beauty until the mystical Crystal which somehow governs the land is damaged, and a single piece is lost. Upon the cracking of the Crystal two new races come to being: the Skeksis and the Mystics. The Skeksis are power-hungry and cruel, and it is they who take over the castle, using the now Dark Crystal to ravage the land for their own needs, terrorising and enslaving all other races. After their millennia rule, the world is now a wasteland devoid of beauty. The Mystics, which were driven from the castle, instead live a simple, gentle life of peace, practising natural sorcery, a source of wisdom and kindness to all. However, after a thousand years both races are nearly extinct with only a handful surviving, and now a prophecy is soon to be fulfilled. The leader of the Mystics tells the Gelfling boy, Jen, whom he has rescued and raised, that it his destiny to find the Dark Crystal’s missing shard. It is Jen’s task to use it to heal the Crystal before the three Suns in the sky meet to form “The Great Conjunction”. If he fails, the Skeksis will become immortal and will rule forever.

As you can see from that plot summary, The Dark Crystal does draw on common tropes, being that it is very much a typical Quest story, but it succeeds in taking these common ideas and making them completely its own. Now, I do have a penchant for fantasy: I am one of the new generation that completely fell in love with the Lord of the Rings series, but one of my pet peeves of fantasy is that they all seem to imitate Tolkien’s formula of men, elves and dwarves; it’s boring and overdone. In The Dark Crystal however, all the races and creatures are completely unique to their own world. Yes, they are inspired by our own mythology and nature, but the genius of Brian Froud manages to take familiar images and features and mix them up enough to create something entirely new. Some of them are awe-inspiring, some of them are terrifying. The Skeksis look like vultures with desiccated flesh and porcupine spines – I defy any adult to not be scared by the Skeksi Emperor’s death as his face and body crumbles into dust. And it’s not just the main characters who are their own original designs. Each random creature, like Fizzgig and his two rows of teeth or the Land Striders with their freakishly huge shoulder blades – even plants like the bushes that shy away from Jen as he walks past – each have their own special idiosyncratic design born from Froud’s mind.

This movie boasts the amazing creativity of the conceptual design from the characters to the sets, which can be argued for most modern movies (though you can’t rule out that the impact of Froud’s design work in many movies since), but the greatest difference between The Dark Crystal and modern fantasies is the execution.

I don’t want to insult the huge amount of skill, patience and stress that goes into CG effects, but my God puppeteers and performers in the extraordinarily heavy Garthim costumes (the Skeksis’ soldiers) having to be hung up on to racks every 5 minutes just so they could rest… that’s just something else; that is dedication to the art. In fact, one of The Dark Crystal’s claims to fame is that it is the first motion picture to exclusively feature puppets (with only the odd human performer for some wide shots). All those fantastical creatures and terrifying beasts, every amazing courageous feat our heroes performed, every bloody scene in that movie was a careful orchestration and choreography of performers who were slugging their guts out in heavy costumes or operating complex puppets, and they didn’t shy away from the action despite all the obstacles they would have had to overcome. As such there were some very energetic scenes featured in the movie – all of the Garthim battle scenes in particular – which is remarkable considering how numerous these scenes are and how difficult they must have been to shoot.

So yeah… puppets. People would probably expect something terribly hokey and laughable, but I’ll say to all you haters right now, this isn’t a Thunderbirds affair of jaunty, flailing limbs and dead eyes rolling around in their sockets [sorry Gerry, I actually really love your shows], this is a visually stunning film that will suspend your belief and take you on a mad, emotional ride. Yes, you can tell the characters are puppets and in some instances you can easily discern how some of the creatures are operated – for example, the land striders are clearly actors walking on all fours on stilts – but that doesn’t take anything away from the movie. As a kid, you’re so taken by how freaky these creatures look that you’re too busy being in awe to notice they’re just guys in suits; and when you’re an adult, you’re too impressed by those actors being able to run using stilts, on all fours no less, to care that they are puppets.

Also this is the Jim Henson Production Company we’re talking about – the people who bring such character and life to their creations. The whole world consider the characters to be actual people and celebrities in their own right (and I defy anyone who claims they were not upset over the break-up of Kermit and Miss Piggy). The Dark Crystal is no exception to the Henson magic, with each character having their own mannerisms: Jen who has never left the Mystic’s home is clumsy and is a touch unsure on his feet, whilst Kira, another Gelfing Jen meets on his journey, is graceful and far more confident in her movement. The effect of this, and the whole world being solely inhabited by puppets, is that it looks believable. This was cutting edge, and would continue to be so for the coming 30 years, with the Jim Henson Workshop being the authority on puppets in TV and film. The realness and tangibility of all the creatures in The Dark Crystal means they have hardly aged and can hold up against some of the major blockbusters of today in terms of realism.

The major blockbusters that quickly come to mind are the recent DCEU releases – another dirty film confession of mine is that I actually enjoyed Batman v Superman, but I cannot deny that the last half hour wandered far into the domain of sheer stupidity; that Kryptonian glob monster looked absolutely atrocious. The CG was just plain crap! It looked like the cave troll from The Fellowship of the Ring, which came out 15 years previously! Then in Wonder Woman this year, some of Diana’s more death-defying leaps looked suspiciously like PS2 game-play. And you know what, these underwhelming special effects didn’t make me smile like the goofiness of the special effects in many classic 80s fantasy flicks. I was unimpressed, because both of these films were major blockbusters yet they still couldn’t manage to deliver decent CG effects, and that screamed of laziness and cost-cutting which is something The Dark Crystal can never be accused of.

This is essentially why I am so excited by this current 80s obsession, as I feel it is part of a desire to go back to better cinematic times. Yeah nostalgia can be blinding and misleading at times; using CG effects allows the creation of spine-tingling visuals and high-charged action sequences without the danger and difficulties of physical effects. However, as CG has become normalised, all those movie bosses will question the use of alternatives because relying on computers is cheaper and easier, essentially killing a craft. Personally, I love these older techniques and the filmmakers willing to exert themselves for their craft because they visibly, and undeniably, love the craft and the act of producing art for consumption, and I favour movies in which love has been squeezed into every frame because it nurtures creativity, giving the films a greater lasting impact.

Take the likes of Sam Raimi and his series of horrors in the 80s – it involved dragging cameras across forest floors, chasing its stars with a motorbike, and Raimi recording the sound of wind to create terrifying demonic voices. Raimi was so focused on his creation, he took inspiration from his surroundings which is simply wonderful. Furthermore, with JJ Abrams and his favouring of practical effects taking the wheel for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the franchise was now miles away from the dark days of the prequels and all its amorphous CG creations – he made the effort to strike a more perfect balance between computer wizardry and physical effects, resulting in a cleaner and more realistic look. In fact, I felt a tiny bit convinced that what I was witnessing was indeed a story from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Then of course there’s Jim Henson, possibly the greatest children’s entertainer in the world, who respected his audience and trusted in what they wanted to see: ‘Sesame Street’ is the face of educational TV, the Muppets are the epitome of silliness that both children and adults can enjoy, and his fantasy creations were terrifying enough to not alienate children but instead capture a place in their hearts forever. He never reduced his productions to minimal effort – The Dark Crystal took itself very seriously – and he always managed to avoid the feeling of a hackneyed production on his way to making special, fantastical pictures.

So, if film-makers of today are imitating some of the great movies from that decade, then good. All artists copied the works of past masters before becoming geniuses in their own rights, and with the likes of the new Dark Crystal series embracing animatronics and puppets in all their glory, we could be witnessing the beginning of a re-emergence in the so-called ‘old’ techniques that rose the original to prominence, and that can only be a good thing for all of us who appreciate the craft of cinema and its many forms of art.

Leave a Comment