The Dork Crystal

The Dark Crystal is a strange, strange movie. It’s been lurking on the fringes of my consciousness for decades. I’d played Gelfling Adventure on some unknown computer at some unknown place at some unknown time and I saw images from the movie from time to time. I knew that it was considered something of a misstep for Henson’s Creature Workshop, but I didn’t really have any good sense of why. The impression I had from the pictures I’d seen here and there was that there was something surprisingly dark and haunting about this supposed kids’ movie. But basically, in Grampa Simpson’s immortal words, “You remind me of a poem I can’t remember, and a song that may never have existed, and a place I’m not sure I’ve ever been to.”

Well, now I’ve seen it. And, yeah, everything I’d heard about it was true, and then some. How best to put this?

The Dark Crystal appears to have been made by means of an extended game of Exquisite Corpse. The general story is dark, foreboding, and quite clearly intended to be epic. Except for the unbelievably portentious voice-over introduction, however, the screenplay is wispy-thin pap, with insubstantial and unmemorable dialogue. The visual and character designs are eerie and otherworldly in a more elfin, clasically mystical way. The actual “acting,” though, is heavily Muppetized; things that ought to be heavy move like marionettes.

The end result is profoundly disconcerting. At ninety minutes, the movie feels langorous and drawn out too long. Every bit of plot development, although highly predictable and deliberately telegraphed, still manages to arrive on the screen as a non sequitor. The Gelflings fall squarely into the Uncanny Valley. And Muppets strapped down to a chair and tortured is a combination that should not have been.

In a way, it’s disappointing. What I thought of as oddly resonant images turned out to be flotsam. There are beautiful bits here and there (particularly the most impressive orrery of all time) and occasional moments when the what-might-have-been comes closer to having-been. It does appear that lots of backstory never found its way into the movie or showed up on screen in ways that would be comprehensible only to those already in the know. An interesting, tantalizing … failure.

Next up, possibly: The Black Hole. I encountered a read-along children’s book based on it, back when I must have been five or six, and had absolutely no idea what was supposed to be going on. It was an odd combination of dark and cutesy, seemed to involve a spaceship, and made zero sense. My guess is that the Dark Cystal effect was at work: that the incoherent children’s book was merely a reflection of incoherence in the movie itself. I’m curious, though, now, to see the original, and compare my time-distorted memories of a medium-distorted adaptation to the original. Was it the product of some serious drug abuse by the production team, or is there a better explanation for the bizzare images still floating around in the back of my head.