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Movie

The Dark Crystal
(1982)

 

The Dark Crystal is probably the prime example of an ’80s kids’ movie that isn’t The NeverEnding Story demanding an esoteric reading. Its creators were upfront about its influences, in particular The Seth Material channelled by Jane Roberts (which is curious in itself, given the picture’s central tenets). The movie’s a supremely idiosyncratic melange of recognisably innocuous tropes and sinister gnostic themes. And that’s even without Donald Marshall’s testimony regarding its background. None of which makes The Dark Crystal a classic movie, however, simply one beloved of a certain (g)nostalgic fan contingent (which may be why the much-heralded and well-reviewed Netflix prequel failed to earn a recommission. The loyal keepers of the crystal are a small yet vocal force).

Jim Henson was, so goes the lore, devoted to the Seth Material at the time he conceived the premise and also inspired by an edition of Lewis Carroll poetry depicting costumed crocodiles. He had designer Brian Froud and screenwriter David Odell read and digest Seth Speaks, which in turn spawned a tale of a world brought low when the Great Crystal of Truth on the planet Thra is cracked. Gelfling Jen (Stephen Garlick) must restore the Shard to the Crystal in order to bring wholeness to the land, which has been ravaged by the vulture-like Skeksis (albeit, they were original called the Reptus Group, and are referred to as “Putrid lizards”). Their counterparts – albeit, not “Sethian” counterparts, which are a whole different thing – are the peaceful urRu Mystics, one of whom has mentored Jen before snuffing it (which is also when the Skeksis’ ailing emperor dies).

Aughra: What was sundered and undone shall be whole. The two made one. 
UrSkeks: Now the prophecy is fulfilled. We are again one. Many ages ago, in our arrogance and delusion, we shattered the pure Crystal, and our world split apart. Your courage and sacrifice have made us whole, and restored the true power of the Crystal.

It turns out the reason for the strange symbiosis between the Skeksis and Mystics is that they’re two sides of the same coin. The urSkeks arrived on Thra a thousand years before and proceeded to shatter the Crystal, splitting themselves into two separate races; it took Kira to restore them to their natural, enhanced state.

Chamberlain: Get back, spithead!

The Dark Crystal is one of those movies I could appreciate in terms of production design but found decidedly lacking when it came to engagement and pacing. Rather like Henson’s later Labyrinth, on that score (Krull’s another). The hero figure is so anaemic, he makes Luke Skywalker look like Darth Vader. You can feel the manner in which the production is predicated on puppetry rather than the fundamentals of storytelling. It hits the expected beats of a Star Wars (wise mentor, chosen-one novice, princess love interest, black-hat villains, mystic force) but with nary a whiff of dramatic momentum. There are positives, of course. Billie Whitelaw’s Aughra, who looks a little bit like an elderly Whitelaw, is a grumpier Yoda type. The Skeskis Chamberlain, voiced by Barry Dennen, is the movie’s MVP; his curious/humorous/eccentric “Hmmmmm” sounds utterly hilarious. 

But the mythology itself is often nebulous. So much so, it needed to be filled in by Froud in The World of the Dark Crystal. It thus becomes evident the urSkeks were banished from their home world for attempting to manipulate that planet’s crystal. Obviously, this suggests parallels to fallen angels, particularly as they presented themselves as “light bringers” (Lucifer, hello). Their attempts to use the Crystal of Truth to return home led to it becoming the Dark Crystal, and the splitting into two races.

I have to admit to finding the connections this premise has to the Seth Material elusive. I was never overfamiliar with Seth, but having reacquainted myself with its core principles, the dualism at the centre of The Dark Crystal just doesn’t seem to figure, even in a “warring with oneself” kind of way. Indeed, Seth explicitly rejects ideas of good and evil, light and dark, except in as much as the individual thinks it so. Odell has it that “The spiritual kernel of The Dark Crystal is heavily influenced by Seth. I’ve always felt that the idea of perfect beings split into a good mystic part and an evil materialistic part which are reunited after a long separation is Jim’s response to the teachings of that book. Jim admitted that he didn’t understand the book himself, and that everyone would understand it — or not understand it — in their own way. But he thought it opened up a whole different way of looking at reality, which I think was one of his goals in making The Dark Crystal”.

So… yeah, I guess, if Henson didn’t understand Seth, that might explain his appraising it as a brand of (gnostic) dualism. But surely Odell would have understood it wasn’t? Indeed, I’ve been unable to locate an analysis of just what is Sethian in The Dark Crystal, with most simply referencing it as such and leaving it at that. David Bentley Hart followed suit, calling it “probably the senior gnostic fantasy of quality to be produced in our age, cinematically speaking” while leaving it dangling that it resulted from “a long fascination with the Seth Material”. Maybe, at a big stretch, one might equate the demiurgic influence of the urSkeks to Seth’s “All That Is” (constantly seeking to know itself as creator, but “All That Is knows no other. It does not know whether or not other psychic gestalts like Itself may exist. It is constantly searching”’; were one to foster a negative reading of the Seth’s God, it would be of a demiurge in self-denial. I hasten to stress that I don’t think pursuing this path makes for any kind of approximation). 

Generally, though, this is a mish-mash. We can see in Aughra – in terms of the extant material – an inverse Sophia figure, in the sense that she is inadvertently seduced into the downfall of the world. Obviously, Sophia spawned the demiurge in gnostic lore, whereas Aughra is an emanation of the planet Thra; her “interest in the universe was exploited to acquire the Crystal of Truth from her. The urSkeks, though, are more characteristic of fallen angels (excepting that they have the olive branch of a chance to return home, should they master their darkness).

Going back to the observation three paragraphs ago, I suppose one might see parallels with the Seth Material in terms of its implicit indifference to concepts of good and evil (“In larger terms there is no evil, only your own lack of perception”), which could be argued as tying in with the essential dualism reunited of The Dark Crystal. 

Jay Dyer’s essay on the movie is expectedly strong on the gnostic undercurrents, but he fundamentally misremembers the picture’s premise (to fit his reading?) And this isn’t from an extradiegetic source, it’s right there for the taking: “The film ends with the Mystics arriving on the scene, and actually melding with the dreaded Skekses into a new, higher race of gods. So the supposed good and evil principles, we are told, are no different. In fact, that they were was an illusion, or a mere necessity. In reality, the Mystics were one side of the coin, and the evil Skekses, the other side”. While such attainment is entirely in keeping with gnostic enlightenment, or Luciferian for that matter, the UrSkeks are not a “new, higher race of gods” but the ones they were before being restored (they are not even a Zarathrustrian take on good and evil in balance, as they derive from unified beings). 

While Dyer’s point on good vs evil stands, his analysis that “The ‘truth’ was a Hegelian synthesis of the two principles into a higher godlike being” is more problematic in terms of the content of the text. I can see a Hegelian good/evil/synthesis reading, but extending that the interpretation to the Skeksis and Mystics as simply a control mechanism – that is, the conspiracy-age reading of the Hegelian dialectic, as opposed to the strict philosophy one –rather flounders. Who is controlling them? The demiurge? 

Dyer seems to be saying they are the elite fashioning themselves as good/evil so as to control the masses (this would be David Icke’s “problem, reaction, solution”): “the film is actually laying out… the principle of dialectics and control of both sides… all wrapped up in glittering puppetry and imaginary landscapes”. In such a take, the intent is to lead one along the false trail to transhumanism, via the Skeksis quest for “immortality and godhood… imagining the actual world, where the elites truly try to conquer death through technology via transhumanism”. 

I have difficulty seeing that applied in a coherent sense to what’s on screen (of course, Dyer’s oft-referenced Christianity, modified as it has been by elites, could be argued as falling prey to this, but he’d be unable to countenance such a thing, at least openly). One might expect such an analogy to carry through via the seduction of Gelfling or podling or whomever toward such a path, but it’s absent. It may be that searching for a “clean” metaphor here is a fool’s errand, that there’s an expressly willed smorgasbord that distorts meaning through a desire to blur understanding of truth. The “pure” dark message may be obfuscated, but that obfuscation in itself would make it a success, since one is assimilating defaced “positive” precepts (in the manner elites have messed with the messages of the likes of Christianity and Buddhism).

An unsullied message is certainly secondary, if Donald Marshall’s take on the subject is anything to go by. He had it that the movie’s Mystics were a representation of the “Nephilim” he encountered (not the actual Nephilim, although Donald wasn’t aware of this. Rather, his rodentia gigantus – or “giant rat possum thing” – are a race from beyond the Ice Wall. Marshall set out the actual characters and use of the Mystic’s Chord:

In the movie Dark Crystal they are depicted as good and wise… they don’t show their deadly looking teeth… like a killer whale… hook backwards slightly… they didn’t put that in the movie because they would look menacing… they wanted them to look like peaceful things… and they can make the sound WAY LOUDER than that… they can mess you up with it at close range especially if a bunch do it at once… vibrates your brain and joints if you’re in range… they can also do a short LOUD chirp that can stun you for like 3 seconds before you realize your still standing in front of it… like it knocks you out for 2-3 seconds, but you don’t fall… your stunned… from the soundwave vibration being so strong from something so big.

He also said “They talk slow and whisper like in the Dark Crystal movie, younger ones talk faster, they learn as they age, have language. And “They will eat anything. Veggies meat… they do eat human. They wear clothes… like robes. younger ones are hairier… the old ones lose a lot of hair, but keep the hair on the top of the head”. One has to wonder slightly at this, given the rodents get good press in The Dark Crystal, but the reptiles – if one wants to analogise them as Draco – as the Skeksis are bad. Albeit “necessary”, and good and bad are just perceptions. All the same, there’s no holding back in making them ugly, and V a few years later also wouldn’t hold back either (Marshall saidthey get some pissed when humans cringe at the sight of them” and “makes em sad at their hideousness”). Unless they wanted themselves depicted as terrifying…

Skeksis Doctor: It won’t hurt. We just want to drain your living essence.

After all, The Dark Crystal has reptiles preying on humans for their essence. Or rather, on podlings and Geflings. “Now the Beam will rid you of fears, your thoughts… your vital essence” the podling is told, and that it is a very lucky slave; “only the Emperor can drink your essence”. So the elite of the elite, in contrast to adrenochrome, available to your Hollywood elite. But like adrenochrome, “It will make you young again, sire”. The Skeksis Doctor comments “It always worked… better when we used Gelflings” which rather suggests vampires reluctantly feeding on cattle. 

One might forward other interpretations. The power of the crystal lends itself to Atlantis (Henson conceived of The Dark Chrysalis, which Froud misunderstood during discussions). The split, and dark forces ruling the land, suggests the veil of control that asserted itself post- the 1700 Event. Henson’s rep is, of course, benign and cuddly, much like Uncle Walt’s. He’d made The Land of Gorch for SNL prior to this, however, which was closer to Meet the Feebles-lite in terms of depraved puppets. Henson saw The Dark Crystal as a chance to “get back to the darkness of original Grimm’s Fairy Tales”. Which is a goal, I guess. Alan Garner is said to have conceived of the dropped Skeksis language (Odell said otherwise). 

One thing the Netflix series won’t have changed is that The Dark Crystal is, essentially, a cult item. It had a very particular appeal even on first release, not readily taken up by your typical Muppets or Star Wars fans. Closer to your D&D aesthetic. It should probably be given more attention by those with an interest in esoterica and belief systems, or simply those attentive to warping the minds of the impressionable.

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