Thursday, August 6, 2020

Space 1979: The one with a cyclops, Liam Neeson and a giant spider

Title: Krull
What Year?: 1982 (pre production and filming)/ 1983 (release)
Classification: Irreproducible Oddity/ Runnerup/ Mashup
Rating: Downright Decent! (4/5)

In the course of this feature, I have already frequently mentioned my ability to remember movies as the world’s worst superpower. This time, I’m really going to illustrate why. Because of my uncanny abilities, many of my experiences with pop culture have involved trying to hunt down things normal people would probably have assumed never existed. But if I can remember seeing something, I know I saw it. The worst part is, there’s still plenty of things I remember that I still have never found a trace of, yet I haven’t given up, because when I have found anything at all, it usually turns out I was right all along. My strangest and most random experience of all was relatively late, in high school. My brother and one of his friends were watching a movie that I saw maybe an hour of. What I remembered was that there were bad guys with ray guns, a teleporting sentient fortress, flying horses, a cyclops that gets squashed by a door, a guy who turns into a tiger, and a witch living in the middle of a giant spider web. And that was all I had to go on to find Krull.

Our story begins with the appearance of a huge object floating through space while the very heroic score plays. As the credits end, the object touches down tail-first on the titular planet Krull, to become a giant tower that seems to have been formed directly from crystals and coral reefs. In the next scene, we meet a princess named Lyssa waiting for the arrival of her groom Colwyn, the prince of a once hostile kingdom, who must travel through a countryside where mysterious Slayers roam at will. The prince arrives, but so do the Slayers, stormtrooper types that appear to be alien crustaceans inside a biomechanical armored shell. They quickly overrun the castle and capture the princess for their master, the Beast, leaving Colwyn for dead. The prince is discovered by Ynyr, a mystic who prophesies that it is his destiny to defeat the Beast with a magical weapon called the Glaive. Soon enough, they gather a band of outlaws and misfits, including a semicompetent sorcerer and a cyclops whose race was cheated by the Beast on another world. But to rescue the princess, they must find the location of the Beast’s mobile lair, known only to Ynyr’s old flame, the Widow of the Web.

Krull was first developed in 1980 as part of a wave of early 1980s fantasy films that also included Dragonslayer in 1981 and Conan the Barbarian in 1982. It received an official budget of $27 million, mainly for sets and effects. The cast included stage actor Ken Marshall as Colwyn, Freddie Jones as Ynyr, Liam Neeson in an early role as one of the outlaws, and Bernard Bresslaw as the Cyclops.  The soundtrack was composed by James Horner, fresh off the success of Wrath of Kahn. The studio apparently sought to expand the movie’s footprint with tie-in merchandise, most significantly a video game for the Atari 2600. Alas, the final box office receipts were well under $20 million.

This is the kind of movie I have always wanted to like, and I certainly like it very well. What has most interested me is that its detractors and some of its fans have assumed it to be an imitation of other films while rarely offering a clear or chronologically convincing argument what the production was ripping off. Of course, other fantasy films were being made at the time, but many of them came out while this movie was already in production. More importantly, any intentional references to other sci fi and fantasy films (especially in the design of the Slayers) are limited and often creative in their own right. The culminating irony is that the one thing that was really like Krull was the He Man/ Masters of the Universe franchise, which nobody has noticed. However, any analysis of either property will make it clear that this was simply a case of independent development. What’s truly interesting on this vein is that kids were happy to accept exactly the kind of mashup of sci fi and fantasy that Krull had tried and failed to sell to adult audiences.

Meanwhile, considered on its own merits, what stands out about Krull is just how bleak it is. For once, the legions of evil prove effective and competent both in individual combat and strategic planning. The Slayers are silent at all times, with a further gift for emerging or simply appearing in improbable and inaccessible places. While the heroes prove able to best them in close combat given the opportunity, they take steady losses in a series of ambushes and sniping attacks, while at least some of the Slayers appear to survive the destruction of their humanoid forms. The usually unseen Beast almost always stays a step ahead of the heroes, particularly when it comes to hiding the location of his fortress. The fortress itself easily supplies the most effective moments of the movie. The sense of malignant sentience from its shifting biomechanoid forms is so strong that the appearance of the Beast himself is anticlimactic by comparison.

The movie also offers plenty from its heroes and their world. The Cyclops is easily the most interesting, as stealthy and elusive as the Slayers, yet charming and articulate when he chooses to speak. He is also given a compelling and tragic backstory that figures in the plot without being overplayed. The outlaws are uniformly well-cast, enough so that Neeson does not outshine the rest. The enchanter Ergo is perhaps the most nuanced character, serving the assigned role of comic relieve while showing well-honed survival instincts and stretches of competence. The movie’s varied terrain greatly adds to the sense of depth, particularly the lava-filled cavern where Colwyn retrieves the Glaive and the dismal swamps. The most astonishing setting is the Web, a thoroughly menacing environment that remains quite distinct from the forces of the Beast. The Widow and the creature that seems both to guard and imprison her may be evil, but they are evils born of their own world and in their own element, not intruders from elsewhere.

Unfortunately, even praise gets to the core problems of the movie. The first half of the movie is one big pacing problem, with some of its most interesting events and episodes passing without further development while others drag on far longer than necessary. In a more modern movie would probably have thrown in a half-baked revelation that Colwyn was left alive so the Slayers could steal the Glaive, except he has it for most of the movie, and does so little with it that the forces of evil might have suffered greater losses trying to use the death-frisbee themselves. The movie’s problems become a perfect storm with Colwyn and the casting of Marshall, otherwise best known as the insufferable Eddington on Deep Space Nine. I have thought about this a very long time, and the best way I can put it now is by comparison with Sam Jones in Flash Gordon. The latter could at least be accepted as good-natured and kind, while Colwyn far too often comes off as self-centered even in his virtue. Whether this is because the clearly superior actor wasn’t right for the role or simply brought out the more irritating qualities of the character is ultimately a chicken/ egg paradox I don’t care to give more time to.

It should be clear that none of this is meant to say the movie doesn’t “work”. On the contrary, its greatest strength is taking scenes that sound almost comical in cold blood and making them convincing and moving. The strongest example is my pick for the “one scene”, the ride of the fire mares. After discovering that the fortress is in a distant land, the band of heroes must capture a herd of magic horses to cover the distance. The Cyclops announces he must remain behind to await his anticipated fate. The following sequence is uncharacteristically weak in its effects, with matte work no better than Harryhausen did in the 1950s and 1960s. But the Clydesdales serving as the herd are beautiful, and accompanied by the most epic segment of Horner’s excellent score. (Someday I may tell of my own adventure obtaining the soundtrack.) The sequence leads seamlessly into an especially tense confrontation with the Slayers, who hold the high ground from the portals of the fortress. When all seems lost, the Cyclops arrives, defying his destiny and quickly demonstrating the price.

With this review, I have gotten to the one I have the strongest feelings about. I have tried to be honest about its flaws, which is the main reason I haven’t rated it higher. I still consider all of them  (including my issues with Marshall) to be quite forgivable compared to what the movie does right. Above all, it deserves more than due credit for its audacious creativity in blending genres. In that respect, it was a brave experiment that could only have been done at one time, and it is still unmatched. So let’s hear it for the whole crew, and sing a lay for the Cyclops. We will not be moved.

For links, one of the first and most insightful reviews I turned ups is still available at  An overview of my classifications and rating system (and preliminary comments about this movie) is available in the feature Introduction. For a little extra random, there's an AVGN/ Cinemassacre video about the Atari game.

1 comment:

  1. Above all, it deserves more than due credit for its audacious creativity in blending genres.

    Maybe it's because my primary interest in F/SF lies in the classic pulps, but I think the separation between Fantasy and Science Fiction was largely a marketing phenomenon that was, sadly, bought into by the fans.

    Stories by A. Merritt and HPL often blended (channeling 'Thundarr the Barbarian', a precursor to 'He-Man' if ever there was one) savagery, super-science, and sorcery. Jack Vance had his 'Dying Earth' wizards study mathematics, and wrote about the stranded descendants of spacefarers waging war against each other using voodoo. C.L. Moore had her interplanetary smuggler Northwest Smith team up with her medieval French swordswoman Jirel of Joiry. Even the derivative Tolkienesque Sword of Shannara had a scene in which the heroes fought a cyborg.

    The recent resurgence of interest in the old 'weird' stories has resulted in a newfound realization that fantasy and science-fiction have always gone together well, we just bought into an unnatural schism for a few decades.