However, most wannabes ignored a crucial element of George Lucas’ extremely lucrative franchise – despite all the spaceships, robots and lasers, ‘Star Wars’ was actually fantasy in sci-fi clothing, built around a hero whose quest was as much about magic (cleverly renamed to “the Force”) as futuristic gadgets.
Luke Skywalker’s well-publicized exploits on the Death Star were such a spectacular success that there was an air of inevitability as other Hollywood studios tried to make their own “Star Wars.” Even more remarkable was the fact that their subsequent attempts to milk the cash cow (or bantha perhaps?) required such different approaches to space.
In the years following “A New Hope,” viewers were invited to the high camp of “Flash Gordon,” the over-the-top space opera of “The Black Hole” and a Roger Corman-produced interstellar riff on “The Magnificent Seven” called “Struggle Beyond the stars.” “Star Trek” also got in on the action with the “2001: A Space Odyssey”-esque grandeur of “The Motion Picture,” while TV viewers got a weekly dose of science fiction thanks to “Battlestar Galactica.” (arguably one of the best science fiction TV shows of all time).
Unlike most of its rivals, “Krull” pushed fantasy to the top of the mix. In fact, it effectively turned the Lucas formula on its head, imagining a quasi-fairytale world in which the minimal sci-fi quotient was fulfilled by some duplicitous alien invaders. If the producers had pitched the film as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ with Stormtroopers instead of Orcs, they wouldn’t be far off.
It turns out that audiences either weren’t ready for Hollywood’s latest attempt to ride the “Star Wars” wave, or — more likely — simply weren’t interested. “Krull” was a critical and commercial flop when it was released in 1983, and even now, on its 40th anniversary, it’s difficult to understand exactly what the filmmakers were aiming for. Still, if you can look past the overly serious dialogue, the disjointed plots, and the bizarre mash-up of genres, the film still delivers its fair share of memorable moments. The game is even armed with a weapon that deserves a place alongside the best lightsabers in the arsenal of classic sci-fi artillery.
Like “A New Hope,” “Krull” begins with a gigantic spacecraft flying over an unknown planet orbiting two suns. This spacecraft is actually the Black Fortress, the mobile base for the all-conquering Beast who has decided to make the planet Krull (a name worthy of a prog rock album) his new home. We know this because older mentor figure Ynyr (Freddie Jones) tells us in his ridiculously ominous opening narration that “this was given me to know.”
Then, as seamlessly as switching channels on your TV remote, the movie transitions into territory more traditionally associated with a Disney cartoon. In a theme park-worthy fairytale castle, the chosen ones Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) declare their eternal love for each other, safe in the knowledge that they not brother and sister. But this most tender moment proves short-lived, as the Beast’s Slayers (faceless soldiers wearing Stormtrooper-like plastic armor) show up to crash the party. As Colwyn’s human soldiers do their best to fight laser weapons with swords, the skirmish is so horrific that it’s no surprise when Lyssa is kidnapped to become the Beast’s unwilling bride.
Tragedies like these are often the creation of a fantasy hero, so with the help of Ynyr-Wan Kenobi, Colwyn sets out to save his fiancée. Along the way, he dips his hand into a pool of lava to retrieve the glaive (a magical bladed boomerang) and then – although he has little visible charisma – he convinces a shapeshifter, a cyclops, a child and an army of hard-boiled humans. mercenaries (including Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane) to join his impossible quest.
There isn’t much else about the film that stands up to scrutiny. Why is a herd of horses conveniently waiting for the gang as they emerge from a particularly treacherous forest? How does Colwyn know how to use the glaive despite his complete lack of training? How are the people of Krull aware of other planets when the world is seemingly devoid of science or technology? And why does a place described on the film poster as ‘a world light years beyond your imagination’ look so much like the British countryside? Audiences who had seen “Return of the Jedi” a few months earlier must have felt deeply disappointed.
Despite its flaws, “Krull” is punctuated by ideas, characters and moments that stick in the memory. Cyclops Rell (played by ‘Carry On’ regular Bernard Bresslaw) is a truly tragic figure, cursed to live with a vision of his own heartbreaking demise. And even with minimal screen time, a pre-“Dune” Francesca Annis turns the enigmatic Widow of the Web into an unexpectedly sympathetic character — all despite a storyline that revolves around the kind of nominative concoction that would later turn into “Batman vs. Superman”: Dawn of Justice” has been made a joke.
The ingenious idea that the Black Fort moves every sunrise gives the story a sense of urgency that it never quite responds to, while sequences involving quicksand – or that famously ominous mix of heroes, peaks and moving walls – hark back to the adventure series of the 1990s thirty. had previously inspired Lucas.
“Krull” also boasted two notable behind-the-scenes figures. The first was James Horner, whose beautiful score is arguably better than the film’s, even if many of the themes are reused from his masterful ‘The Wrath of Khan’ soundtrack released last year. The other was Derek Meddings, the veteran of “Thunderbirds,” the James Bond franchise and the Christopher Reeve Superman films who oversaw the film’s VFX. While much of the imagery may seem dated compared to Industrial Light & Magic’s work on ‘Return of the Jedi’, ‘Krull’ certainly delivers when it comes to giant spiders, alien overlords and teleporting fortresses.
Then there’s the gun that is perhaps Krull’s most important pop culture legacy. The glaive may not be as elegant as a lightsaber or as practical (you’d cut your hand every time you caught it, wouldn’t you?), but there’s no doubt that it impressed kids who watched the movie in the aughts. Watched the 80s on VHS and the 90s. Since then, it’s been referenced everywhere from “South Park” to “Ready Player One” to “World of Warcraft.” So while ‘Krull’ hasn’t (yet) been deemed worthy of a ‘Willow’-style reboot, this slice of ’80s science fantasy lives on in the unlikely form of a piece of spinning metal.