Everyone has a few nostalgia laden favorite films from their past. As a child of the 80s, some of mine were The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and, of course, The Dark Crystal. Jim Henson’s fantasy epic from 1982 is coming into something of a revival since Netflix will be releasing a 10 part prequel series this Friday. To prepare for the series, I revisited the film this week for the first time in a decade. While I remembered the high fantasy elements, it’s only as an adult that I see past the adventure of the plot to its underlying heart.
For those unfamiliar with it, The Dark Crystal follows the story of a Gelfling, Jen, one of the last members of a race murdered because a prophecy says a Gelfling will kill the land’s ruling class, the Skeksis. The Skeksis live in a castle that houses the mystical Dark Crystal. They use the crystal to cheat death and have extended their lives for almost a thousand years. An upcoming celestial event, The Great Conjunction, will supercharge the crystal and allow the Skeksis to become immortal, if, that is, Jen is unable to repair the Dark Crystal by returning its lost shard.
Sound complicated? It is. To add to the basic plot, you have a cast of Mystics (the ancient antithesis of the Skeksis), Podlings (small scavenger creatures that are being enslaved), Kira (the only other surviving Gelfling), her racoon/dog Fizzgig, an army of giant beetle soldiers (the Garthim), and the oracle, Aughra.
The film opens with a voiceover explaining that the Crystal was shattered a thousand years before. The cracking of the Crystal created the two races of the Skeksis and the Mystics. These two species are connected by the Crystal and what happens to one member of the Skeksis will also happen to one member of the Mystics. We see this when the Skeksis emperor dies and the eldest Mystic, Jen’s surrogate father, dies at the same time. While the Skeksis emperor crumbles into dust, dissolving from his artificially lengthened life, the eldest Mystic simply fades away into a shimmer.
Before death, the eldest Mystic revealed that Jen must journey to see the oracle, Aughra, as she is the holder of the crystal shard that can repair the Dark Crystal. The Mystic conjures images for Jen from a pail and we see that Aughra’s home is in the shape of a great glass brain. This fact never fails to delight me.
Aughra herself remains one of my favorite characters in any film. She is an ancient female with rams horns curled under her wild gray hair. She has exaggerated breasts and buttocks, whiskers, and no time for your shit. She is a remnant of the deep past and lives in an observatory. Her machine which tracks the movements of the heavens lets her stride the line between science and magic.
Aughra is a creature of all things mysterious and embodies all races, all genders, and is the very essence of the world…
One of the things that The Dark Crystal does best is synthesize our own world into itself allowing us to see our archetypes more clearly. Aughra isn’t just the fabled wise old woman, she is equal parts shaman and astronomer. For her the two realms are one, indeed, she finds it silly that everyone doesn’t know as much as she does. The world isn’t complicated from her point of view. Things are as they are and the faster you realize and accept that the better off you’ll be. Her horns are an a callback to some of the earliest goddess imagery and to Shamanism, a belief system that originated in part from the hallucinogenic urine of reindeer. Reindeer are the only species of deer where females also have antlers and Shamans the world over often incorporate antlers and horns into their ritual regalia.
While Jen puzzles over which of the crystal shards Aughra has given him to choose from (yet another Hero’s test), he realizes that the Mystics song is connected to the Crystal. He takes out his flute and plays the same tone causing the true shard to glow. Picking it up, he sees a vision of the Crystal being shattered. Ripped out of the past by the sound of breaking glass, the armored Garthim attempt to capture Jen.
He uses the rotating planetary model to evade them while Aughra, fearless as ever, commands the Garthim to leave. She’s unsuccessful and a lantern is knocked over in the scuffle. Her home now in flames, she orders Jen to flee with the shard. If he is unable to make his way to the Castle and repair the Crystal, the sacrifice of her home will have been for nothing. We see Jen outside the Observatory, fire engulfing the great glass brain that the Oracle used to inhabit.
Continuing on his journey, Jen must pass through a swamp. It’s a beautiful place where the natural order of life is observed. Strange plants and animals compete to eat each other with amusing results. Jen, unused to any environment outside the desert valley he grew up in, falls into a bog and is caught in the thick mud. As he tries to free himself, a cloaked figure approaches. This is Kira, the last female Gelfling.
She has the power to talk with animals and calls out to the creature buried in the bog. Jen is raised from the mud and when he and Kira touch, they discover they are telepathic and share their earliest memories. Both of them had been saved and raised in secrecy, each believing themselves to be the last of their kind.
Kira takes Jen to her surrogate family, the Podlings. These small, peaceful creatures are welcoming and have a raucous party for Jen. Though Kira’s racoon/dog, Fizzgig, is unsure about Jen, he too warms to the newcomer. Unfortunately, their revelry is short lived as the Garthim have tracked Jen into the swamps. They capture Podlings to be used as slaves while Kira takes Jen and escapes.
Kira consistently saves Jen for much of the second act. It is revealed that she, as a female, has wings and they come in quite handy escaping from the Garthim as she and Jen make their way into the castle. Fizzgig and Kira both are reluctant to enter but Jen, now finding his own courage, knows that the Crystal must be repaired. If the Skeksis are allowed to rule forever, their world will be laid to waste.
The two manage to make it to the Crystal just as the Great Conjunction begins. The world’s three suns are coming into alignment and the remaining Skeksis are all gathered. Kira, weakened, throws the shard to Jen who sits atop the Crystal. She is stabbed as the suns activate the Crystal. Jen plunges the shard back into place as the Mystics finally arrive at the Castle. The Skeksis shriek as the beams of the Crystal catch them, holding them in place as they merge together with the Mystics.
The resulting shining beings explain to Jen that, in their hubris, they had shattered the Crystal. The shining beings were split into their darker aspects, the cruel, greedy Skeksis, and their better impulses, the peaceful, gentle Mystics. These newly restored beings return Kira to life and leave the world they had split with their Crystal of Truth, darkened no more.
This is no doubt a complex tale. When it first debuted, parents were upset about the darker aspects of the film though it was able to recoup its $25 million production budget. For me, the dark parts of the film are what make it so memorable. I was two when the film came out but got it on VHS for my seventh birthday. The tape would no longer play by the time I was in high school.
The Dark Crystal is more than an epic fantasy. It’s a tale of deep healing. The shining beings shattered the Crystal of Truth with the lie that they knew better (hubris). They were smarter. They could control the Truth and make it what they wanted it to be. That initial lie caused their psyches to split and made the dark Skeksis, those that seek power at all costs, and the too gentle Mystics. I say too gentle because emotions like anger are necessary to be complete and whole. One doesn’t have to act on anger to hurt another, but it is foolish to deny it. That only leads to more problems.
Jen and Kira, the male and female aspects of the self that the Dark and Light aspects sought to control, are a necessary pairing. They are the literal representation of balance. Fizzgig is the ancient cautious “warning bell” that we each possess. Aughra is our intellect and intuition. All of them provide vital pieces necessary to heal the Dark Crystal, the lie, and have the shining beings admit their mistakes so that they can then be rectified.
It’s a powerful journey that the Gelflings undertake. In the fantasy realms of what could be seen strictly as a children’s film much deeper Truths are found. That, for me, is what makes Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal storytelling at some of its finest.