Netflix’s new epic event series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is what happens when you give Jim Henson’s gentle 1982 fantasy parable to the director of Transporter 2 with instructions to Game of Thrones the hell out of it. Is that a good or a bad thing? Honestly, it could be a little of both.
If you haven’t read it already, I want to draw your attention to the fact that one of our site writers, Matthew, already did a formal review for Age of Resistance slightly in advance of its streaming debut. (He was granted early access by Netflix.) Matthew approached it as a big fan of the original Jim Henson movie and some of the ancillary materials released subsequently, and he really loved the TV spinoff. That’s a totally fair point of view and it is not my intention in writing a second review here in the blog to contradict his opinion or anything he said. However, I come at the show from a little different perspective.
I have a vague memory of seeing the original Dark Crystal movie in the theater back in 1982. I was eight-years-old at the time, and my main takeaway was being creeped out by the villainous Skeksis, bony vulture-like creatures of vulgar and unquenchable appetites. Beyond that, not much of it stuck with me over the years, and I hadn’t felt a huge desire to revisit it until now. In anticipation of the belated TV version, I rewatched that movie and indeed found the Skeksis to be just as creepy as I remembered. Unfortunately, I also found the movie as a whole to be extremely boring. As impressive as the puppetry and world design of the fantasy universe still are, the hero of the story, a brave Gelfling (basically, a shaggy-haired elf) named Jen, is a very clichéd character archetype mostly devoid of personality. Frankly, he’s a total drip and I didn’t care much about him, nor did I find the film’s simplistic plot terribly engaging. On the other hand, the artistry of the production is so strong that I can easily understand why some viewers would be more affected by it, especially those who first saw it as children and have stronger nostalgia for it than I do.
You don’t really need to have seen the movie (though it’s available on Netflix right now in a decent 4k transfer) to watch the spinoff. Age of Resistance is a prequel story set hundreds of years (or “trine”) before the events of the film. Whereas the alien world of Thra was already in ruin and despair, with only a pair of Gelfling still alive, when Jim Henson introduced them, here it’s a thriving paradise flourishing with life. Several distinct tribes of Gelfling, each with its own culture and traditions, populate the land, all under what they believe to be the benevolent leadership of a much smaller number of Skeksis. Thousands of trine earlier, the Skeksis were entrusted with stewardship of the Crystal of Truth, the giant gem that contains the life force of the planet. What the Gelfling don’t know but soon come to understand is that the greedy Skeksis have been draining the crystal, and thus endangering the planet, to make themselves immortal and retain power.
Hmm, that couldn’t possibly be a metaphor for something, could it?
Season Verdict / Grade: B+
If The Dark Crystal was a simple story, Age of Resistance is anything but. This is a sprawling tale that takes countless cues directly out of the Game of Thrones playbook. Dozens of major characters are voiced by an impressive cast stacked with famous names (at least three of whom do come straight from Game of Thrones). Just a small sampling include Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Isaacs, Lena Headey, Natalie Dormer, Mark Hamill, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keegan-Michael Key, Awkwafina, Eddie Izzard, Helena Bonham Carter, Sigourney Weaver… I could go on. Simon Pegg gets the juiciest role as the Skeksis Chamberlain, a master manipulator and schemer in the Littlefinger mold. The conflicting personalities and motivations are a lot to take in, as is a wealth of backstory that can feel overwhelming at times.
The world-building is also enormous and complicated. I have to imagine that this is the largest and most ambitious production the Henson Creature Workshop has ever undertaken, and the commitment to using real puppets and physical props as much as possible – with some CGI augmentation, but not as much as you’d expect – is admirable. There’s not a human being anywhere in sight in the Dark Crystal universe, and the details of its world are rich and fascinating. And yet, something still holds me back from fully embracing it.
I was wary when I first heard that Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans) would direct all ten episodes of the series. I haven’t been much impressed with anything Leterrier previously made, and he seemed entirely the wrong guy to take over from Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The first episode seems to bear this out, as Leterrier’s restless camera swoops and spins and circles around everything non-stop. Frankly, the director’s need to show off all his fancy camera tricks is fatiguing to watch. As much as I wanted to like the show, I kind of hated it at first.
Thankfully, Leterrier’s ADHD calms down significantly in the subsequent episodes. Perhaps he just ran out of time or money to do so many crane and dolly shots, but whatever the cause, the camera eventually stops to get a decent look at things and let the characters breathe a little. That helps.
Nevertheless, I still had problems fully investing in the series. Something about watching such a serious-minded, grown-up story acted out by adorable puppets just felt a little… I don’t know… silly? The puppets – especially the many Gelfling – have some Uncanny Valley issues. Their faces are very expressive in some ways, but too stiff and artificial in others. Their voices are frequently well out of sync with their mouth movements. I also have to be honest that, more often than not, I couldn’t tell one Gelfling from another, despite acknowledging that they have certain features that are intended to differentiate them. They still all look pretty much the same to me.
My biggest reservation is simply that, despite the aesthetic closely following the original (artist Brian Froud returned to design characters and creatures), the TV series is very tonally different from the movie. In some ways, that’s great. It’s much less boring! But I’m not sure how Jim Henson would feel about it were he still alive, because this Dark Crystal doesn’t feel much like his work anymore.
Also, Age of Resistance suffers a flaw inherent to most prequels, in that we already know going in how this story has to end. The season tries to disguise that a little by concluding on a hopeful note that begs for a follow-up, but the original film is briefly glimpsed in a character’s prophetic vision, so I doubt that the writers or producers plan to ret-con it away. Perhaps a full reboot might have been a better idea than a prequel.