I freakin’ love The Dark Crystal! Let’s watch it! The first post in this series will examine the first scene and the opening credits, 0:00-4:08 on the Blu-ray.
There’s a lot to go over in this first scene, so I’ll try to be succinct as I can. The score, by Trevor Jones, begins over the Universal logo. Then, we get the first shot of the movie, the Skeksis’ castle. The castle is in the distance, surrounded by a rocky, dry terrain, and dark blue storm clouds. Lightning-like electrical flashes come from the cracks in the ground surrounding the castle. (What are those flashes, anyway? Something weather-related, or part of the castle’s energy, or some kind of subterranean machinery?)
The narrator begins his voiceover, saying, “Another world… another time… in the Age of Wonder.” Thanks to the canonical Dark Crystal tie-in fiction, we know that the world is the planet Thra. As for the time, this line is the only reference I can find to the “Age of Wonder.” The canon more accurately describes this as “the Age of Division,” the third thousand-year cycle this world has undergone. I hereby speculate that the “Age of Wonder” refers to all 3,000 years combined.
We hold on the shot of the castle as the narrator tells that a thousand years ago, the Crystal cracked, and a piece of the Crystal, the shard, was lost. Interesting that the movie skips over telling you that there is an all-important Crystal, and instead goes right into its history. I guess the filmmakers realized you already know the movie is called The Dark Crystal, so you can already guess there’s a Crystal of some importance.
Look closely: You can see a couple of mouse-like critters scurrying in the foreground as the narrator speaks.
The narrator continues, saying that when the Crystal cracked, two new races were formed, the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics. (The canon prefers the term “urRu,” but the film for the most part sticks to calling them “Mystics.”)
We move inside the castle, where the narrator tells us, “the Skeksis took control.” The canon has occasional fleeting mentions of the Skeksis of hundreds of years earlier inviting the creatures of Thra into the castle for grand balls and such, but we don’t see anything like that in the movie. Instead, the castle is dark and gloomy on the inside rather than truly grand. This establishes the Skeksis as the villains of the piece, but also demonstrates how the world has fallen into strife.
The next shot reveals the Skeksis standing around a giant purple gem that could only be the Dark Crystal. Despite its name, the Dark Crystal the brightest thing on screen, standing out so we really notice it. The narrator calls this the “sacred chamber.” We can see symbols painted on the tiles around the crystal as it floats in the center.
Look closely: One of the Skeksis’ henchmen, a Garthim, can be spotted hanging out in the background.
More exposition, as the narrator tells us that both the Skeksis bodies and wills are hard and twisted. They’ve ruled for a thousand years, and there only ten of them left alive. (The canon is sketchy on this, but it’s generally believed that they started with eighteen.) The narrator describes them as a “dying race,” and says they gather at the Crystal as the first sun climbs to its peak. That’s right, first sun. This planet has three suns, and we’ll soon learn why that’s important. The narrator’s words are ambiguous here, saying that the Skeksis are using the power of the sun to cheat death, here in this ravaged land.
We get our first close-up of one of the Skeksis. It’s the “Schwarzenegger shot,” with the camera at a low angle looking up at him, so he can appear all giant and imposing. Playing the which-Skeksis-is-which game can be maddening, but I believe this first one we see up close is SkekZok the Ritual Master, with his Ed Grimly-style upward pointy hair spike. The narrator says the ritual of the sun “provides no comfort,” and that “an emperor lies dying.” (Remember these two phrases, we’re going to come back to them.)
Look closely: A bunch of hooded figures can be seen at the top of the screen, watching. These are the Skeksis’ slaves, who will be revealed proper in a later scene.
There’s a triangle-shaped hole in the ceiling. As the sun moves into position over the hole, a beam of light shoots down and then splits, prism-like, into purple beams shooting out from the Dark Crystal and into the Skeksis’ eyes. They stand motionless as this happens. What’s going on here? Well, the narrator already said they do this to cheat death, so there’s that. Later scenes will give us more detail on the Skeksis’ desire for eternal youth. It’s also the filmmaker’s shorthand to say right up front to the audience that this is a whole other world, with rules and customs and creatures all its own. We don’t have to understand these rules and customs, just understand that they exist.
The opening credits run over this part:
A film by Jim Henson: Co-creator of the Muppets and Fraggle Rock, Henson was a puppeteer, filmmaker, writer, songwriter, artist, and all-around Renaissance dude.
Conceptual designer Brian Froud: An artist and painter, Froud has published several art books featuring his paintings of mythological creatures such as trolls and fairies. He created the “look” of most of the creatures and environments in the film.
Director of photography Oswald Morris: Cinematographer who had worked with Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet, and who lensed classic films such as The Guns of Navarone, Moby Dick, and Goodbye Mr. Chips. The Dark Crystal was the last film he worked on.
Film editor Ralph Kemplen: An editor since 1932, Kemplen has a huge list of credits, editing classics like The African Queen, Oliver! and A Man for All Seasons. Like Morris, The Dark Crystal was the last film he worked on.
Production designer Harry Lange: He brings serious geek cred to the movie, having worked on The Empire Strikes Back, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Hyper Sapien!
Music by Trevor Jones: He’s scored dozens of films and TV programs from the start of the ‘80s to today, in all kinds of genres, from Excalibur to Arachnophobia to Notting Hill and many more.
Executive producer David Lazer: My pick for coolest-sounding name in the credits, he’s part of the Henson organization, coming to this film from his work on The Muppet Show.
Screenplay by David Odell, story by Jim Henson: Odell was another veteran of The Muppet Show, where he wrote the famous Star Wars episode, among others. He also wrote the screenplays for Supergirl and Masters of the Universe, and went on to work on cult TV shows Monsters and Tales from the Darkside.
Produced by Jim Henson and Gary Kurtz: Kurtz hit it big producing Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back alongside George Lucas. After Kurtz and Lucas parted ways, Kurtz spent the rest of his career trying to recapture the sci-fi blockbuster success of Star Wars, with mixed results. The Dark Crystal is the better of those efforts, followed by Return to Oz and the disastrous Slipstream, which nearly bankrupted him. IMDB shows Kurtz has two films in the works for 2015 and 2016 releases, so maybe he can still make his big comeback.
Directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz: Another Muppets co-founder, Frank Oz went on to have a successful career as a director, crafting such films as Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger. He also portrayed Yoda in the Star Wars films and he originated the roles of Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.
Back to the movie. The sun moves past the triangle-shaped window, and the screen goes dark. It then cuts to an outside shot where we can see all three suns in the sky. That takes us to the next scene, which we’ll get to… next time!
Next: We meet our hero, the Mystics, and get a lot more exposition. But no more credits, I promise.
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