The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019)
Season 1: Episodes 01 – 10
I’m always reticent to give anything a five-star rating (or 10/10 or whatever) because it gives the impression that the artwork at hand is perfect and that just ain’t so. Very few things are perfect in this world, and almost none of them are movies or TV shows. These scales are not granular enough for real discussion. I hate ‘em, frankly, and I’d do away with them if I could, but I am a wandering Yojimbo and do not make the rules here. So, let’s agree that the perfect rating this highly anticipated Jim Henson/ Netflix project is copping does not mean literally perfect, but rather ‘very, very, very good.’
It’s been a long time coming. The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, the prequel to the late Henson’s 1982 mythic fantasy — which I wrote about here — is the final form of a very long-gestating project. At one-point animator Genndy Tartakovsky, Samurai Jack (2001-17), was up for the task of expanding the franchise, while at another the duties fell to Australian directing brothers Peter and Michael Spierig, Jigsaw (2017).
The mooted sequel never made it to the screen but now lives on as a comic book, The Power of the Dark Crystal. There are other tie-in comics as well that have emerged over the years, and they all seem to be in continuity with the new series, which is impressive — Age of Resistance doesn’t feel like a reboot or reimagining, but a part — perhaps the key part — of a greater whole, a narrative and thematic tapestry where every thread matters. In the current climate, where rejigging and repurposing known properties simply for the value of their brand is the name of the game, such an approach seems novel.
But not, it should be noted, a gimmick. There’s a seriousness of purpose at the heart of Age of Resistance, which is a sweeping fantasy, a political parable, an environmental cautionary tale, and more. It’s also one of the few prequels that really works as a companion piece and thematic precursor to its progenitor; indeed, the fact is that everything that happens over the course of the series’ 10 episodes is tinged with melancholy because we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that most of the characters we’re spending time with are utterly, utterly doomed.
The Dark Crystal ’82 is, of course, a post-apocalyptic film. The characters are living in a world (called Thra, a name never uttered in the film, but frequently dropped in the series) that has been ravaged by ecological calamity as the evil Skeksis use the power of the titular giant gemstone to prolong their own lives indefinitely, ruling the blasted land with iron … er, claws, I guess, even as their perversion of the natural order leeches the very life from the planet. Our heroes, Jen and Kira, are the last survivors of the elflike Gelfling race, prophesied to heal the crystal and overthrow the Skeksis (the link is only a couple of paras up if you want the full story, folks).
In Age of Resistance, we see the world that preceded that: one ruled by Skeksis Lords who portray themselves as benevolent, aristocratic caretakers, with the various Gelfing Clans (there are seven or so, and we get to spend real time with three) generally doing quite well under their rule.
Well, the Gelfling ruling class are doing okay, at any rate. A few rungs down, the rank-and-file Gelfling struggle to gather the tributes that the Skeksis regularly demand, while the Gelfling glitterati maneuver for political favor from their carrion-esque overlords, too busy with machinations, traditions, pomp, and circumstance to realize that the Skeksis are straight-up evil and are literally killing the world and its people to keep their lavish lifestyle going (I never said it was a subtle political and environmental allegory … )
Three Gelfling heroes each separately stumble across evidence of the Skeksis’ malevolence: Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton), a guard at the Skeksis’ Crystal Castle who hails from the martial Stonewood Clan; Brea (Voiced by Anya Taylor-Joy), a scholarly princess of the Vapra Clan; and Deet (Voiced by Nathalie Emmanuel), a gentle animal carer from the cave-dwelling Grottan Clan). They each set off on separate quests to warn their fellow Gelfling (the singular is the plural, just like Skeksis) about the duplicity of the Skeksis, with adventure, awe and the occasional child-scarring horror awaiting them.
One thing that is really striking about the Age of Resistance is how much of a piece it feels with its predecessor. Film and effects technology have enabled director Louis Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk (2008), executive producers Jeffrey Addiss, Will Matthews, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and their team to give us a more expansive and rich view of the World of Thra, but it never seems to contradict Henson’s original film. Rather it develops outward from that work’s necessarily constrained scale to show us a universe that quite conceivably exists outside of Henson’s frame, yet contains wonders that are simply breathtaking.
I don’t even want to cite any examples, for fear of robbing you of a jaw-dropping moment; as a work of sheer, sumptuous, aesthetic imagination, Age of Resistance leaves all recent fantasy efforts in the dust. Yes, including Game of Thrones (2011-19). Including Lord of the Rings (2001-03)? Well, let’s define ‘recent’ first, but there’s certainly a conversation to be had. Brian Froud’s ancient and alien production design has lost none of its haunting charm in the nigh-40 years since The Dark Crystal first swept into the popular conscious like a sweet and chilly Autumn wind, and now a whole new generation is going to be as rapt and unnerved as my lot were back in the day.
Yes, rapt, and yes, unnerved. Age of Resistance might be populated by puppets and steeped in poetry and lore up there with the finest fairy tales, but it’s a dark and complex piece. Characters die, ostensibly good people do terrible things out of their own sense of rightness, and for those who were traumatized by the Skeksis, the Garthim, and whatever Henson blithely hurled into the sensoria of ’82’s unwitting kids, rest assured that the new edition is, if anything, filled with even more nightmare fuel, and it actually gets worse (or better? Your call, constant viewer) as it goes along.
It’s certainly more complex, emotionally, and politically. There’s a larger cast in play, with more intricate relationships, and more moral shadings to boot — it’s nowhere near as binary as it used to be. That larger cast, along with the fact that we are irresistibly building to genocide means there’s a higher body count, and higher stakes — it’s quite plausible for almost any character to die, and we’re wholly invested in their doings by the time the season one counter begins to wind down and you realize that, if this is a one-and-done, many puppet bodies are going to hit the floor before too long.
That we’re so invested is in spite of the limitations of the puppetry on display, not because of its impressiveness, which sounds counter-intuitive, but bear with me. The more alien creatures in the mix, the wrinkly wizened Mystics, the potato-lookin’ Podlings (God bless Hup, the little Sir Didymus-alike that he is), cadaverous Skeksis and so on are incredibly easy to plug into. Suspension of disbelief comes relatively quickly, because we’re not used to seeing those patterns of behavior, expression, and movement — we take it as read that what we’re seeing is how one of these critters works. For the smooth-cheeked, more human Gelfling, it takes a lot more effort; their expressions are more wooden, their movements more obviously exaggerated, their eyes less expressive, and we know how humanoids operate — when a gesture or a reaction doesn’t ring true, it jars.
That we get there at all is largely down to the quality of the writing and the work of the voice cast, who are a mix of the subtle and emotionally true (our three heroes and a goodly whack of the other Gelfling, who are lent the lungs of Eddie Izzard, Lena Headey, Toby Jones, Alicia Vikander, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Helena Bonham Carter, et al) and delirious, cackling pantomime (the Skeksis vocal cohort include such noted scenery-chewers as Jason Isaacs, Awkwafina, Harvey Fierstein, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Keegan-Michael Key and more). But we do get there. In any case, as I’ve said elsewhere, the artifice is part of the appeal. We already know there are strings in play; where’s the fun in pointing at them?
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a remarkable achievement of modern screen storytelling, presenting a rich and sumptuous skein of myth and magic that winds through a fully realized and singularly original world. I love it, genuinely and whole-heartedly. It’s frankly amazing we ever got to go back to Thra, and even more miraculously, it looks like we won’t have to linger another 37 years to go back again. I can’t wait.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson