39 years ago, the biggest sci-fi bomb of all time changed the genre forever
One of the biggest flops of the '80s is weird and worth a revisit.
The biggest difference between wonky sci-fi movies of the ‘80s and those of today is intent. If a modern sci-fi film fails, those failures stem from the production’s inherent cynicism. A clone movie like Gemini Man is forgettable because it’s generic and pandering. An ambitious space epic like Valerian is awful because it feels soulless. In the ‘80s, failed genre films could also come across as sweet and well-meaning (1984’s Supergirl, for example). The best example is also the biggest flop of ‘80s sci-fi flicks: Krull. 39 years ago, Krull hit theaters at a time when no one was ready for it.
In some ways, we still aren’t.
Unlike two other monosyllabic sci-fi movies from around the same time — Tron and Dune — there’s a real possibility that contemporary genre fans haven’t heard of Krull. Directed by Peter Yates, who helmed the action classic Bullitt, Krull looks amazing on paper. You’ve got music from James Horner, just one year after he did The Wrath of Khan. You’ve got Francesca Annis one year before Dune. And you’ve got special effects from Derek Meddings, fresh from Superman and Superman II. On paper, it has every opportunity to be totally epic.
So what went wrong? Why does Krull suck? Does Krull actually suck? For those of us who rented it on VHS in the late ‘80s, there’s a sense of awesomeness captured in amber.
The movie is an unabashed rip-off of Star Wars set on a planet that’s an unabashed rip-off of Lord of the Rings. Just like Masters of the Universe made a world of laser guns and sword and sorcery seem explicable, Krull seized the aesthetic and ran with it. Does it make sense? Do the people who live on the titular planet of Krull just accept the fact that the princess-kidnapping Beast and his teleporting Black Fortress only recently landed on their planet? Why do the Beast’s minions make that weird sound when they’re murdered?
Krull really hopes you stop asking those questions and assumed, somewhat correctly, that its target audience was moviegoers only interested in the aesthetic and in hazily remembering awesome moments. Krull comes from a time when movies weren’t made to hold up under relentless re-watches. It didn’t withstand scrutiny then, and it certainly doesn’t now.
And yet the movie has an endless supply of charm. As Prince Colwyn, Kenneth Marshall gives us the visage of a time-traveling Ewan McGregor fused with an immortal Errol Flynn. This isn’t to say Marshall is as great as either of them, but he’s great for the role. A cynic might say Cary Elwes would have been better, and that The Princess Bride is proof. But what makes Marshall perfect is that he approaches the absurdity of Krull with deadly seriousness. Marshall is playing to the 12-year-old in the audience, which is the whole point.
Tonally, Krull is like an animated Disney film from the 1940s brought to life with actors from the ‘80s.
Krull also gave the world the first big performances from Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane, better known as Qui-Gon Jinn and Hagrid. In Krull, these two are not the stars. Instead, they’re part of a band of traveling bandits, and neither is even the leader. Prince Colwyn manages to convince these ruffians to join his cause and rescue Princess Lyssa because, well, of course, he does. He’s the hero. While it's doubtful either Neeson or Coltrane would call Krull their big breakout, it is the first time they both do fantasy.
Krull also made an important mark on sci-fi and fantasy cinema in a way that’s hard to prove yet feels indelibly true. If there’s one image from the film that has a pop culture legacy, it’s easily the Glaive, which functions as a kind of magical death boomerang. The inexplicable nature of the Glaive is absurd, but Krull is the rare watered-down fantasy knock-off that doesn’t shy away from violence at all. Some of the gruesome monster action at the beginning snaps you out of any belief you might be watching a deleted scene from Spaceballs and posits that in the world of Krull, things can and do get hardcore.
So, relatively speaking, Krull is a much scarier and darker film than, say, Return of the Jedi, a movie that came out the same year. In fact, you could imagine that from film critic to angsty teen, it would have been more punk to say you preferred this movie to Jedi, for one simple reason: It seems slightly more grounded, and the action is a little scarier. Sure, the stakes are non-existent and confusing, but it’s hard to argue that Krull isn’t risky. On the planet Krull, the Ewoks would get eaten.
By blending science fiction and high fantasy, and freely borrowing from countless stories that came before, Krull wasn’t trying to be timeless. Instead, it was trying to be badass. It may have failed. But watching the attempt is so much fun.