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~Review by Grawlix (December 2017)
Krull is a mess, but it’s one of the most fascinating messes you’re ever likely to watch. If Star Wars proved anything, it was that extra money put into the production of a sci-fi flick wasn’t automatically money wasted. Of all of the new wave Sci-fi/Fantasy flicks (Krull straddles this line between genres more than most) that were released in Star Wars’ aftermath, Krull is the one that went all-in on this philosophy. With an eye-watering budget of $47 Million (Return of the Jedi, by comparison, cost about $40 million, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Excalibur both weighed in at around $11 million), Krull is an absolute bonanza of 80’s special effects, extravagant costumes, props and sets. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to give too much thought to trifles like story or characters. The result is a lavish film that meanders its way from one elaborate sequence to the next, yet by the end of each scene, you find yourself wondering why, exactly, you should care.
On the Middle-Earth-ish planet of Krull, Prince Colwyn and Princess Lyssa marry to secure an alliance of their respective kingdoms. Politically motivated unions of this type tend to be a bit dicey, but it appears as though the two have genuine feelings for one another so it’s all good. Unfortunately, they barely have enough time to finish their vows before the wedding is attacked by The Slayers, forces of The Beast, who massacre the guests, wound Colwyn, and kidnap Lyssa. Aaaand that’s about it as far as setup goes. Upon recovery, Colwyn sets out to rescue her, and since he’s fresh out of kingdoms, he also has a bit of rebuilding to do. Thus, along the way, he locates a powerful ancient weapon, discovers a mystical inner power, and recruits a ragtag cadre of magicians, scoundrels, and a towering non-human. If you were to spread Star Wars’s plot points randomly over a 5×5 grid, you’d be yelling BINGO by about the 30 minute mark of Krull. But if you thought Star Wars did some hand-waving over various story inconsistencies, then Krull fairly well breaks its wrists. A good deal of the plot, such as it is, involves figuring out a way to find The Beast’s Black Fortress, which teleports to a new location every morning at sunrise. This requires our heroes to seek out seers and sages and the like, but it’s all very ad hoc, almost as if the writers were making it all up as they went along. Similar thematic revelations also come out of nowhere and, in general, have little impact beyond a single scene where only an orchestral swell or a dramatic camera angle is offered to let the viewer know something significant is supposed to be happening.
Krull does sport some memorable casting, though not in the way you might think. Colwyn and Lyssa are played by Ken Marshall and Lysette Anthony respectively, two young actors who were in the early stages of their careers. Marshall sports a suitably rugged, swashbuckling look, though his moves in the action scenes aren’t particularly impressive and the script doesn’t give him much character development to make up the difference. After Krull he went on to do…. not a whole hell of a lot, really, beyond a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Anthony fares even worse, as the painfully generic damsel in distress who doesn’t get so much as a sarcastic quip or a satisfyingly unladylike punch to a bad guy’s jaw. She does look damn good, though; kind of like a red-headed Helena Bonham Carter. Seriously, I’ve always questioned how realistic it is that a dashing, handsome action hero is willing to move heaven and earth for a single woman, particularly one that he doesn’t even know all that well, but seeing how Anthony looks in this movie, I can totally understand Colwyn’s (and The Beast’s, for that matter) motivation. <ahem> Anyway, Krull didn’t exactly launch her career either, but she has popped up here and there in things like the 90’s Dark Shadows (attempted) revival, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and a bunch of British TV shows.
Of more interest to modern viewers is that Krull provided early roles to the then-unknown Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane, though it wasn’t exactly a star-making vehicle for them, either. Coltrane in particular looks like Pops Racer and frankly comes off like he wandered into the wrong audition and is just going with the flow. They play merry-men-style bandits, and each gets a few lines, but they’re minor parts and mostly forgettable. Still, it’s neat to see such iconic actors at the beginning of their careers, taking jobs they needed, if not necessarily ones they wanted. I also need to mention Freddie Jones and Francesca Annis, who would appear together again in Dune, a sentimental favorite of mine, a year later.
From a production standpoint, the movie is pretty amazing. The visuals were cutting edge in 1983 and still look pretty good today. The sets, though obviously sound stages bulked out with matte paintings, are gloriously outlandish. Of particular note is the Black Fortress that sports a motif best described as internal alien anatomy. Native Krullian society seems Medieval fantasy-esque (A longstanding rumor was that Krull was originally intended to be a Dungeons & Dragons movie adaptation. There doesn’t seem to be any truth to it, but it totally works on that level if you want to watch it that way.) but just alien enough that all of the props and costumes had to be created from scratch, which must’ve been tough on the respective art departments but it does give Krull a unique look. There’s even a stop-motion giant spider which looks great. The Beast’s forces provide the more sci-fi elements, particularly his Slayer army, whose armor looks like Darth Vader’s crossed with a stag beetle and who wield lances that fire blaster bolt style projectiles. At times you can practically see the imaginations of the conceptual designers straining against the limitations of the effects. The Slayers die pretty spectacularly (complete with a screeching wail), for instance, but it must’ve been a tough effect to pull off since we only see it on screen once or twice even though, as enemy foot soldiers, they die quite a bit. The Beast looks appealingly hideous in what was apparently the first ever fully self contained animatronic suit, but it also must have had its share of problems since we only ever see it in extreme closeup or shrouded in fog. And there’s a cyclops character with some really nice makeup effects (including a blinking, or, er, winking, eye) but it’s painfully obvious that they rendered the actor completely blind, limiting his participation in the action.
And I guess I should also mention the Glaive, a large animated shuriken (or a bladed metal starfish) and Colwyn’s signature weapon. It’s all over the add copy of the movie, including being worked into the logo, and it’s clear that the producers were hoping it would become the next lightsaber, though honestly its impact on the story is minimal. Colwyn finds it early on in the story but is cautioned to only use it “when he needs it” which, despite all the life threatening situations in which he finds himself, only happens towards the end. Seems like an odd way to build a brand around a gimmick to me, but then, the Glaive is still one of the main things people remember about the movie (if they remember it at all) so I guess they did something right.
The music is another highlight, another great soundtrack by James Horner, still early in his own career. At times it almost feels too melodramatic for its own good, and at other times it seems to do more than its fair share of the emotional wagon-pulling, but these faults lie more with the weak script than with Horner who, at the very least, turned in an epic score worthy of the film’s budget.
Krull is great as a shut-your-brain-off adventure flick, but it’s clear that the producers were hoping it would be so much more. Ultimately they only have themselves to blame for its failure (and boy did it fail, making back less than half of its budget on initial release). The characters are barely one-dimensional, the dialog is almost entirely expositional, and the plot is mostly an afterthought. For a movie that tried so very hard to one-up Star Wars, they clearly missed one of George Lucas’s most famous quotes about making it:
“Special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story. People have a tendency to confuse them as an end to themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”
Exhibit A: Krull.
Final Score: B-
I wonder if I’m being too charitable with a score of B- but C+ seems a little too harsh for a movie that got almost everything right. It’s just unfortunate that the things it got wrong, characters and story, are pretty noticeable shortcomings. Krull is like the cinematic equivalent of one of those multi-tiered wedding cakes. It looks impressive, and probably took a lot of effort to make, but cut into it, and it’s just pain old pound cake. Maybe you like pound cake and maybe you don’t, but it’s certainly nothing to make a full meal out of. Still, as spectacle alone, you could do worse. And it’s a good one to break out if you ever need an example of just how crazy 80’s movies could get when money was no object.
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