Jim Henson’s original Dark Crystal movie was sold as the first live-action feature where no humans would be visible on screen. This was at once a celebration of its impeccably-mounted alternative reality and a complete and total red herring. Because while the numerous characters with ‘talking parts’ that we meet in the Dark Crystal might be identified as Gelfling, Mystics or Skeksis, the reason they matter at all is that, when you push focus past the allegory and fantastical trappings, they’re people. All of them. (Ok, except Fizzgig. He’s probably a dog.)
The truism goes that any work of science fiction or fantasy, no matter the far flung future or long ago galaxy it depicts, is really about the time of its making. Wonderlands such as Middle-earth, Westeros or Oz – and now, The Dark Crystal’s Netflix-rejuvenated Thra – are all reflections of the culture in which they were created.
In many cases, and this is most certainly one, the effect is more than incidental. The similarities between what you see on screen in Netflix’s prequel series, The Age of Resistance, and what’s boiling over outside your window are not just inescapable by-products. Oh no. This show has opinions. It wants to have a word about How Things Are Going and If There’s Anything We Can Do About It. Better still, it wants to do this through an entertaining, emotionally resonant story. Jim Henson himself would be proud – and for many readers, we think that’s the best recommendation we could ever give.
We’re skipping spoilers in this First Look review – stay tuned for a later piece – but for now, let’s say that this series has a far swervier plot than the 1982 movie. There are still heroes and heroines on epic quests, mystical lore that practically oozes out of the screen, and evil villains that need to be vanquished, but where the original Dark Crystal rests a little too comfortably on a heap of fossilised tropes, Age of Resistance pirouettes from one bit of folkloric business to another.
Blockbuster cinema as we know it was very young in 1982, when the film was released, and the rush was on to bring the aesthetic polish and tactile nature of Star Wars to other grand yet typically simple stories. Now, though, we’re getting rather used to long-running series that turn their own tropes inside out, sustain complicated structures over many hours of telling, and provide a density of characters that absolutely begs for their portrayal to be more sophisticated and varied – and, thankfully, increasingly diverse to boot. All of this speaks to why now was a good time for a new Dark Crystal chapter or 10.
But the updating process has not been flawless and consistent. The hand-held shooting style favoured by director Louis Leterrier and director of photography Erik Wilson too often trades the grandeur of Oswald Morris’ feature film cinematography for something more indifferent, if ostensibly intimate. In this respect, the show has adjusted to more contemporary preferences – or maybe just Leterrier’s personal taste. At least it now encompasses, to some extent, tonal shifts between different scene types and scales that go far beyond what was attempted in the original movie — but it doesn’t come without a cost.
Meanwhile, there’s more unnecessary hangover from the past in the puppets of the Gelfling. These characters’ mechanically restricted faces might be remembered as passing just fine in a more technically limited context, but today? The truth is Henson and team went as close to the cutting edge as they could with the craft and technology of The Dark Crystal, and Henson himself would likely have pushed for the same today. Age of Resistance offers improved Gelfling, but surely a vanguard-smashing pioneer such as Henson would have found many more and far better ways to give the puppeteers control of their characters’ expressions.
As it is, even with limited scope for effecting the Gelfling faces, their puppeteers create an amazing display of emotion simply by changing the angle of the head or shifting a character’s overall body language. You could give this cast of puppeteers a box of wooden spoons and they’d quickly bring them to life as complex, compelling characters.
Within those (seemingly self-)imposed limitations on the Gelflings, their designs and physical builds are beautiful, cleverly exploiting colour, shape and texture. Absolutely everything, in fact, is intricately designed, and thanks to the oversight of Brian Froud, what we see in these ten hours feels consistent not only with itself, but the bigger Dark Crystal canon, including the original film and Froud’s published sketchbooks.
Age of Resistance is not only a worthy successor to the Dark Crystal and heir to its still-impressive accomplishments but also a proud child, clearly filled with love of where it came from and what it represents, and passionate about living up to its legacy.
Because this show is, first and foremost, a grand tale, and all of its energies are ultimately dispersed towards storytelling it’s hard to get to what makes it special without specific detail. We hope you will join us again soon, perhaps after you’ve seen the show, for something more spoiler-filled.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.