In Defense of Boring Movies: The Dark Crystal "Director's Cut" (2022)

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.


Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Don't want to be a richer man
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
(Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can't trace time

—"Changes," David Bowie

(Note: I've embedded the film being discussed here at the bottom of the post, so skip down if you want to get straight to the action!)

Something exciting happened to fans of Jim Henson's 1982 cult classic The Dark Crystal over the weekend: they got to see what it could have been.

The Dark Crystal is a weird film, but it was especially weird for moviegoers of 1982, who were mostly familiar with Henson's work on lighter, all-ages entertainment like The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, and were not necessarily prepared for an unsettling journey through an alien fantasy land full of monsters, danger, and death. Which is what they got when they sat down to see The Dark Crystal.

Test audiences for the film found it confusing and alienating. For these reasons, they did not like it very much. As a result, the final version of the film was changed significantly; to decrease audience confusion, voiceover narration and internal monologues were added—explaning background information and character motivations, respectively—and to decrease audience alienation, scenes where characters spoke in invented languages were dubbed over with English. The result is something even a child can understand, though whether they can enjoy it depends on their level of tolerance for the weird:

Original costume from The Dark Crystal

Much like another 1982 film, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, such changes significantly altered the film's overall feel and enjoyability, and a passionate fan base developed around both films because of their dark, weird, creative vision. Unlike Blade Runner, no version of The Dark Crystal as it was originally conceived has been made widely available to fans. Until now.

You can read about it in more detail in the notes below, but this version consists mostly of restored audio from a VHS workprint of the film, synced with video from the DVD version, with scenes rearranged to match the order they appear in in the workprint, and with occasional VHS video from the workprint where no DVD version of the scenes exist. In short, it's the closest thing we currently have to a watchable "director's cut" cut of The Dark Crystal. And it's great.

This post is part of series of posts on "boring" movies, which I've defined up till now as movies that pose deep questions about life and then step back and give the viewer a headspace to examine these questions. This definition is a little too narrow to include The Dark Crystal, however; as far as I can tell, there are no deep questions on display in the film, and there's a little too much action for much of the movie to be considered "headspace." This cut of The Dark Crystal is a boring movie in a broader sense: it's boring because it requires significant energy to watch. This is actually a trait of many bad movies: if a movie is badly paced or confusingly cut, it can require extra energy that the audience should not have to spend in order to understand what is going on.

But if a movie deliberately sets out to challenge an audience, forcing viewers to make key connections and guess at backstory and character motivations, the result can be a much more entertaining and rewarding experience than that offered by a movie that spells everything out. In other words, movies that are willing to risk boring their viewers are often better for it. The Dark Crystal, like other movies in this series, is proof of this principle.

This cut of The Dark Crystal opens with a pair of unexplained deaths and the main character beginning a quest; he understands niether the goal of the quest nor how to accomplish it. Viewers are given no information that the characters do not have, and indeed less, as we have no idea who any of the characters we're meeting are, and information about them will only be delivered, piecemeal, later in the film. Engaged viewers will put in the energy needed to wonder about the missing information and look for it to appear later in the film, and they'll feel rewarded for their investment when they start to learn about what's kept mysterious earlier in the movie. The Dark Crystal's key enticement to convince the viewer to invest their energy this way is in its intensely imaginative and beautiful visual world, which is on display from the start and never really lets up. Check out, for exampe, this gorgeously imagined otherworldly swamp:

This cut of the movie is not without problems. The audio has been cleaned up from what was apparently a nearly unlistenable state, but it is still a VHS-quality sound, which can sometimes be jarring when paired with the crisp DVD-quality visuals, and which occasionally produces unintelligible dialog. The editor also had a few issues syncing audio and video, which results in a couple moments where the two do not quite match up. Also, some of the video is from the VHS workprint, and is of a much lower quality than the rest of the film. In this clip, you can hear some of the warbly VHS audio that the film occasionally features, and you can see some of the VHS-quality video that was salvaged from the workprint (in this case, in black and white, though some other VHS scenes are in color), providing a more complete transition between two scenes than is present in the final cut:

Lastly, one way in which this cut resembles neither the original vision of the film nor the final one is that it has long segments of untranslated dialog. The original idea was that one group of characters, the Skeksis, would speak in an invented language that would then be subtitled; this invented language appears in the director's cut, but there are no subtitles for it and the audience must guess from context what is being said. In this way, this cut feels more like another film in the In Defense of Boring Movies series, Dead Man, in which there are extended segments of untranslated Native American language dialog. (This comparison is moot if you happen to speak Cree or Blackfoot. Or Skeksis, for that matter.) While we were watching the part of the film in the clip below, I told my roommate that there was intentionally no translation or English dialog, and he said "Good, because I felt like I was going insane."

It would be nice to see an edition that both reflects the original vision of Jim Henson and that doesn't feel like a bootleg. But what we have here is still in many ways superior to the offical cut of the movie; it is a version that challenges viewers in a number of ways and more fully rewards the decision to sit down and watch The Dark Crystal. I think it's definitely worth a look, and not just for people who are already fans.


Link to an interview with the editor of this cut

Other notes from the editor:

Early versions of The Dark Crystal were a bit different than the version we see today. Jim Henson and Frank Oz originally sought to create a much darker story that relied more on the audience and less on voice-overs and inner monologues explaining the plot. In this version there's no narrator, Jen's inner monologues are gone, and the Skeksis hardly ever say anything in English (Aughra speaks some Skeksis too!). This version is much more modern and a little darker with this original audio and the slightly different score. Some of the scenes are moved around too, which adds to the surreal feel of the original film. Some test audiences were more casual moviegoers and responded negatively to this version so the Henson team redubbed the ENTIRE film to help explain the plot to the audience up front and make things more obvious.

Sadly this beautiful version was mostly lost with a few rough-looking (yet still redubbed at times) scenes making it to the DVD and Blu-Ray versions. Demonoid user Aikousha saw this early test version when he was a kid and took it upon himself to track down this little bit of film history. What he found was a very nasty black and white "workprint" copy (used by the Dark Crystal production team) on a VHS tape that was very grainy and was almost unlistenable due to tape compression and SEVERE hiss and noise. But the important thing was that it was a mostly intact version of the beautiful vision of Jim Henson, Brian Froud, and Frank Oz. The Dark Crystal, as originally intended!

Workprints are used by the production crew and this one has all the trappings of one. Grease marks on the film, rough cuts, tape slowdown, and unfinished special effects among other things. Now, this workprint is still out floating around on the internet but it's really painful to watch and the sound is atrocious so I took it upon myself to clean up the audio, sync it to a clean treatment of the video, include some scenes that were unavailable anywhere else, and recut a watchable version that played out like the workprint.

Disclaimer: It's still a little rough. My computer had lots of slowdown since I was syncing to a HQ vid and some of the missteps in editing weren't noticeable until the 5 hour render was complete! They're minor and not frequent so it might only take you out of the moment briefly.

Black and white scenes were included from the workprint occasionally since they're not available elsewhere. They include: A matte painting of landscape in front of Skeksis castle that pans down to the 'lost' Jen swimming scene, an extended clip of 'Trial By Stone', an extended scene in Aughra's home, with a little extra at the end.

Deleted funeral scenes from the DVD are restored to their proper place.

There is also some beautiful alternate music composed by Vangelis here and there

Credit goes to Demonoid user Aikousha for finding the workprint and making it available. All reassembly was done by me scoodidabop (aka Christopher Orgeron/Creedo). If anyone wishes to attempt restoring the black and white scenes I'll gladly include them in a new edit of the film. For the record I attempted to contact the Henson company earlier this year when I had about half of the edit complete to ask about sharing this on youtube but they never responded to my inquiry. Also, I just found out today (Dec 2nd) that someone else attempted this same idea and called it "The Darker Crystal" and released it in September. This is NOT his version. I haven't seen his version but I'm sure mine is similar to his.

I began working on this over 2 years ago and finally finished it last week. Lots of work but it was worth it.


Photos:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Skeksis_on_Display.jpg
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Dark_Crystal_Film_Poster.jpg

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