It certainly takes courage to go toe-to-toe in a title match with the conclusion of George Lucas’ seven year bender from 1977-1983 where he ransacked everything Hollywood knew about entertainment and threshed them to his liking. Although in the case of Krull, courage is a virtue for the foolish. The court jester of our current subject is Peter Yates, a man of bolder vision than Lucas ever was and whose 1983 commercial misfire Krull amalgamates influences from disparate decades and cultures into an alternately raffish and bemusing conglomerate of headstrong style and stylistic insubordination. The two warring factions of the film beleaguered by an alien invasion might have been Lucas and Yates, except unlike in the film, Lucas chose not to forge a tenuous partnership with his fellow traveler but to banish him and wield the space-faring races for his own use like some sort of space-trucking, interspecies pimp.
It was thus that Yates’ career was mostly dead in the water after this corporate misfire of nearly Ishtar proportions, although, as is often the case with commercial failures benighted with a death mark and treated to a lifetime of purgatory and social untouchable status, the artistic virtues of the film are actually more equivocal rather than unambiguously bad; point in fact, while Krull is too misshapen to overtake Empire Strikes Back or even the original Star Wars, it is notably sharper and more stylistically adventurous than its overpowering bete noire Return of the Jedi. As is too often the case, cultural banishment is the result of a film playing with the cultural establishment rather than playing the obsequious grunt; it turns out that beauty, of a sort, or at least stylistic ambition, felled the beast that is Krull.
With the pop-friendly cinematic storm overlooking the land like a black cloud, Krull stages its own fire-and-brimstone, weather-wielding holocaust to fight back with a near-shocking cinematic lyricism and a brunt, brazen brutality that was an ion storm away from the relative placidity expected by many viewers upon release. Although the broad structure of Krull – aliens invade royal wedding, prince finds mysterious weapon that can obliterate alien leader, prince gathers raffish crew to aid him – is relatively trite, the particulars are of a more malleable clay. Yates’ free-wheeling recalibration of earlier cinematic delights – the early American works like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Thief of Baghdad chief among them – draws not only from so-called pulp literary fiction but the spine-tingling surrealism of the more unhinged, fractal ne’er-do-well films from the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Yates’ ambition isn’t necessarily equaled by his ability to rein in this often free-associative beast of a film, but the filmmaking credentials never drop below a light hysteria as Yates escapades from conflict to trap with an admirably high-flying attitude. Unlike Lucas, who often thawed his films out to a relatively straightforward stare, Krull prefers to throw electrons and particles around each other with an admirably ricocheting athleticism. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is affectionately lyrical in moments and baroquely nightmarish in others, as scenes vary from fires-of-hell terror to resplendent peaks of majesty and the lighting accentuates every moment with a flexible admiration for the collective-dream cinema of the ‘20s, when expressive visuals were the raison d’ etre of a more innocent, yet more inescapably evocative kind of film unfiltered by realism yet tethered to our dreams and desires in more nebulous ways.
Elsewhere, the production design by Peter Grimes is more potently evocative than the imagery in all but The Empire Strikes Back, as far as Lucas’ series is concerned, reflecting an aesthetically-minded sensibility more closely entwined with a painter’s knack for storyboarding than a filmmakers air of budget-mindedness (indeed, the budget for Krull certainly escaped from the filmmakers many times over, but the look is gregariously slathered all over the screen or audiences to rejoice in). Yates also directs with an admirable proficiency and physicality, battening down the hatches of a potentially overweening epic with a style that retains a human focus and a crisp efficiency in the flow from image to image without gawking or masturbating over his images like his film is god’s gift to mankind (although it’s heresy to intimate this, such an affliction is a disease for the more critically lauded Peter Jackson).
Something like The Lord of the Rings often restricts itself with its grandeur, nullifying the tactility of the proceedings by flying so far into the sky that sight of the dingy earth is hidden beneath the mental clouds of its ambition. In comparison, the battered tangibility of Krull is enshrined in its horrific imagery and the twitchy, trembling special effects which are of a materiality lacking in many modern science fiction films; the violence and locations feels present and physical in a way many more high-minded fantasies just don’t. The consequential nature of the action – death is never more than a heartbeat away – kindles a handful of scenes into real terror, and a melancholy lingers over even the most jaunty of scenes, tying Krull low-the-ground even when its kaleidoscopic fantasia overgrows the earth. Whatever flaws Krull exhibits as a screenplay – and honestly, many of those flaws, such as questionable dialogue and watery acting, are kindred spirits with the issues of the original Star Wars – the filmmaking tangibles – like the craggy, surrealist finale set in a villain’s castle labyrinth composed of almost abstract shapes – are always up to par. Overreaching aside, Krull is very much the after-effect of the director who tightened every screw imaginable in 1968’s pedal-to-the-medal city-slicker Bullitt fifteen years earlier, and it is absolutely the better for it.
How good is it?: 3.5/5 (not really a great film, but it has brio and spirit and is obviously a work of craft, naysayers be damned)
Sure, but how “good” is it?: 2.5/5 (the infamous glaive is pretty silly, but this is not engorged with so-bad-it’s-good delights by my count)
Dungeons & Dragons
At the very least, one can say that Dungeons & Dragons is technically accurate; there is at minimum a single dungeon and what might approximate a dragon. Although I have to admit, even on these fronts, the film is awfully cagey; a couple of overlit rooms plastered over in stone-shaped wallpaper and a nebulous deluge of computer particles with some triangles as teeth don’t exactly forecast more than distant rumor of the title’s double D’s. Certainly, the only imaginary fantasia this film recalls is that of a child particularly grounded by and afflicted with an affinity for lowest-common-denominator celluloid; the proverbial kaleidoscopic fantasy dancing around a player’s head – the very raison d’etre of the game’s existence – is hardly a whiff in this film, drowned out by the festering rot of sludgy cinematic malfeasance.
Point in fact, though, Dungeons & Dragons is not only tenuous in its connection to its literalized title but shockingly vacant in its relationship to the spirit of the communitarian role playing extravaganza that is the game upon which it is based. Dungeons & Dragons is much like many “based on a true story” movies that tentatively rely on the niceties of the real world as little more than conceptual, corporate fairy dust to sprinkle over trivial narratives in hopes of using the connection to real events make a buck; in other words, that it introduces itself as “Dungeons & Dragons” is a masquerade for an anemic, bare-bones, deliciously incompetent bargain-bin fantasy quest dreamt up in an inebriated minute. Frankly, it lacks even the specificity of purpose or regional knowledge of its cultural cache to be meaningfully connected to any franchise at all, let alone “Dungeons & Dragons” specifically. It is so broadly-scripted, approximately-directed without precision or vitality, and vacantly-acted a fantasy film that you’re surprised the dragon wasn’t actually a fire hydrant.
I suppose the film technically has a dungeon party, the core of any Dungeons & Dragons ideal, but even then it isn’t an especially adroit or credentialed one. Hero Ridley (Justin Whalin), a thief who seems just as likely to fetch a skateboard in a Clerks film as a dragon-controlling sword in a non-specific fantasy realm, is our none-the-wiser guide. His company includes a racist caricature that out-Jar-Jar’s Jar Jar named Snails (a hyperbolic Marlon Wayans stealing the show in all the wrongs ways, playing down to among the most cringe-inducingly offensive types ever to grace a modern movie). Along for the ride, mostly making no impression, are mage Maina (Zoe McLellan), whose power limit seems to change by the minute according to the script’s needs, and elven warrior Norda (Kristen Wilson) and scruffy dwarf Elwood (Lee Arenberg), both of whom technically can fight but are so nondescript in their characterizations they get lost amidst the deluge of cardboard and driftwood in the backgrounds.
Screenwriters Carroll Cartwright and Topper Lilien and director Courtney Solomon shuffle that crew through a not-so-motley assortment of conflicts and escapades, but this Sunday-school crowd only serves to distract us from the film’s real Abbott and Costello routine, the villainous duet of Mage Profion (Jeremy Irons) and Damodar (Bruce Payne). Foppish Damodar’s blue-painted lips, bon-vivant armor, and torturous gross parody of Levi Stubbs’ voice – like he’s chewing on gravel with every syllable – is a delight, but it’s Irons, dialing up the camp to near logic-perforating heights, who steals the show. This is the sort of bad cinema acting Captain Ahab would spend decades adrift searching for. Fitting, for Irons is a perfect storm, his hands always in the air to alleviate our suspicions that one of them is inching toward his pants and his body gesticulating with a lecherous, primal vigor lacking anywhere else in a mostly bone-dry film. A questionable sort of “life” this may add to the film, but he’s no mirage. This is the platonic ideal of a perennially-flowering oasis in an arid desert of cinematic ineptitude.
How good is it?: 1/5 (the sort of they-just-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to nostalgic badness that has evaporated from the cinematic landscape over the last couple of decades in the great bad movie purge)
Sure, but how “good” is it?: 2.5/5 (the villains are heavenly, but the rest of the film is just bad, and seldom so-bad-it’s-good, unfortunately)