VOD Review: The Dark Crystal – Age of Resistance.
Jim Henson’s dark fantasy returns, expanded and re-imagined to speak to another time and audience.
The Dark Crystal was a watershed experience for many. Raised on The Muppets and Sesame Street, it was a shock and a delight to experience Henson’s more mature and darker visions. Nearly 30 years later, we return to the land of Thra with its Gelflings and Skeksis. Ostensibly a prequel, this embellishment of Henson’s opus feels more like a re-imagining. While many of the faces are familiar, especially the villains, the world is greatly expanded. With its deeper lore and wider scope, Age of Resistance is its own creature. This can be a strength and a weakness for the series. Above all, the series feels crafted to meet a new audience where they live. Despite the fantasy trappings, Age of Resistance is a distinctly 2019 product, addressing the uncertainties and unrest of a modern audience.
The Dark Crystal – Age of Resistance (Netflix).
The Crystal of Truth gives life to the land of Thra. From time immemorial, it has been kept by the scholar Aughra and protected by the elfin race of Gelflings. Things change when an advanced species arrives on Thra – the Skeksis. These technologically dominant creatures offer Aughra a deal: if they are allowed to safeguard and study the crystal, they will build an observatory for her to explore the heavens. Their interest in the crystal appears benign, so Aughra takes the bargain, and the Gelflings welcome the Skeksis as lords of the crystal. Many generations later, a trio of Gelflings from very different walks of life discover that the Skeksis have a more sinister plan for the crystal, and it is up to them to lead a resistance to the increasingly tyrannical lords.
Age of Resistance keeps much of the visual charm of the original. The Skeksis and Aughra look exactly as they did 30 years ago. Many of the smaller creatures put in appearances, giving nods to fan favorites like landstriders and the adorable balls of fuzz and teeth that the original Gelflings kept as pets. The Gelflings and Podlings, the two native sapient species, look slightly different – both more and less doll-like than the older versions. It’s a touch jarring at first, but the new models allow for greater facial expression and better lip-syncing. New creatures mostly feel organic to Henson’s vision. We get many more locations and creatures than we did in his film, but they mesh well with what we already have seen.
The style of the visuals build upon Henson’s pioneering work. Puppetry is used for most of the creature work, with a few scenes using actors in costume shot from angles that obscure the full body work. This is mostly done when the characters need to move quickly, as the puppets still have trouble looking fluid when a full body shot is required. There are a few touches of CG, though an ethos of practical effects suffuse the series. We get gorgeous models and matte paintings for many of the locations, and intricately crafted sets where nearly everything is a movable puppet. The visual palette remains true to the original but is again expanded – the underground home of the Grotan Gelflings is filled with neon colors and bio-luminescence that feels a bit like a mature Fraggle Rock.
Another Time, Another Tale.
The Dark Crystal – Age of Resistance is not your father’s Dark Crystal. The difference is akin to that between The Hobbit and the larger works of Tolkien like The Lord of the Rings and, especially, the Silmarillion. The original work draws heavily upon established fantasy, hinting at deeper lore but mainly concerned with using what you know to drop you into the story. The expanded works go about filling in that tantalizing lore, which tends to reshape the generic fantasy bits into something idiosyncratic to the creator’s universe. While you still get your Gelflings or Hobbits, they end up feeling different as they get developed.
Age of Resistance feels substantially different than The Dark Crystal. On the obvious level, the relationships between the main factions are much different than what was loosely sketched by the first film. Instead of natural parts of the cycle of life and death, we get the Skeksis as an outside force. As of episode four, the mystics are non existent, though a throwaway line referencing them is made. I frankly can’t see how they’d fit in, as they were originally the benevolent mirror image of the evil Skeksis, both of them being part of Thra’s cyclical pattern. The Gelflings feel like such a developed entity that I don’t think we need the mystics in the same way the film did. They’d feel like a deus ex machina, robbing our heroes of their agency and responsibility as participants in the saving of their world.
On a deeper level, the difference between the source and Age of Resistance is in its themes. While feeling subversive and adult, The Dark Crystal was very much a traditional fantasy. An orphan is tasked by prophecy with a heroic journey, visits a sage/mentor for guidance, gains a magical artifact, confronts the evil power, saves the day and gets the girl. Nothing really mind blowing about that story arc. Age of Resistance is much more political. Again, on a surface level because it contains the actual politics of the Gelfling tribes and their allegiance to the Skeksis. On the deeper level, it’s infused with the politics of 2019: inequality, xenophobia, an underclass kept in ideological bondage, young people chafing at a political order that is obviously failing, ecological degradation and the obliviousness/complicity of those in power, etc. While the fantasy elements keep it from being a one-to-one allegory, it certainly has its nose to the wind and is reflecting the concerns of its intended audience.
In the Mix.
The grafting of new themes onto the older framework can be problematic. Some genuflections to the original are made, and I keep waiting for the series to pivot radically towards the original because of these nods. I don’t want it to; I like the new, more intricate universe better (or at least as much) as the original. I hope that we discover than our current journey is just one of many cycles for Thra, one of which happened to be the story of the original Dark Crystal. If the series does make a course correction to try to match up with the original film, I think it would do a violence to the story it’s trying to tell, and the new material would also somewhat diminish that film’s story. From what I’ve seen so far, I’m very interested in what Age of Resistance has to say. I hope the writers resist the urge to drop their own narrative to chase after a story Henson already told a generation ago.