Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Review – Netflix Revival Is A Stunning Achievement
Netflix's 10-part prequel to The Dark Crystal, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, is pitch perfect fantasy.
This Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance review contains no spoilers, except for some information that was presented in the series’ trailers. It is based on all ten episodes of the debut season.
While it earned a modest profit during its original 1982 theatrical run, The Dark Crystal never lived up to the high expectations that Universal or project mastermind Jim Henson had for it. Influenced by everything from new age philosophy to classic fantasy works, the film – directed by Henson and frequent collaborator Frank Oz – was a technical marvel that told its ambitious story through revolutionary puppetry techniques. While a bit derivative of Lord of the Rings and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey (but then again, isn’t everything?) The Dark Crystal had plenty of innovation of its own. The problem, for lack of a better word, is that it wasn’t The Muppets. And audiences weren’t ready for the strange creatures who inhabited the world of Thra, deeming the film either too dark or too weird to be a pop culture gamechanger.
Like many cult works that went unappreciated in their time, the legend of The Dark Crystal has grown exponentially in the nearly 40 years since its initial release. Everything from fiction books to board games to comics have helped to expand the saga’s worldbuilding. While a much ballyhooed sequel never quite panned out, that project’s failure directly led to the birth of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, an enthralling, hugely ambitious 10-part Netflix series that could easily become the next Stranger Things. That is if mainstream audiences are willing to take a gamble on a prequel show based on a property they only half remember in the first place.
On terms of the fantasy scale, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance fits somewhere at the midpoint between The Hobbit-style winsomeness and Game of Thrones-esque plotting. As the series opens, narration from The Myth Speaker (Sigourney Weaver) presents viewers with a sort of Thra 101, realizing that the majority of those bingeing may not be aware that this isn’t a new property just added to Netflix. The world of Thra is inhabited by seven diverse clans of Gelflings, honest and lovable creatures who serve their masters, the Skeksis – massive vulture-like beings who are the guardians of the Crystal of Truth. The crystal is “the source of all life” on Thra, a planet where all things are connected.
Our main characters are Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton/performed by puppeteer Neil Sterenberg), a Gelfling guard sworn to protect the castle that is home to the Crystal, Brea (Anya-Taylor Joy/Alice Dinnean), a Gelfling princess, and Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel/Beccy Henderson), a Gelfling whose tribe lives underground. With whispers of a “Darkening” spreading blight throughout Thra and turning creatures evil, our heroes find their fates intertwined after a tragic event reveals the truth about the Skeksis — whose dark doings set in motion a revolution that will change the course of Thra forever.
Featuring a peerless voice cast of main and supporting characters that also includes Mark Hamill (as a Skeksis scientist who sounds like a cross between his Joker voice and Chris Latta’s Cobra Commander), Jason Isaacs as the Skeksis Emperor, Gugu-Mbatha Raw as Brea’s sister, Simon Pegg as the scheming Skeksis Chamberlain, and Donna Kimball as Aughra, a mysterious figure in Thra’s past and future (and a key player in the original Dark Crystal film), the series has a surprising level of complexity that wears its Game of Thrones influence on its magnificently costumed sleeve. (Did I mention that Lena Headley and Natalie Dormer are also in the cast?) The talent on display here is full of engaging vocal performances combined with the impressive on-set work of the industry’s best puppeteers to deliver fully realized characters.
To reveal plot twists would be a big no-no for a spoiler-free review, but I can say that the surprises are plenty and meaningful. The initial two episodes spend the majority of their runtime establishing Thra and its inhabitants, further illustrating that any previous knowledge of the world of The Dark Crystal is unnecessary to fully enjoy this series. In fact, any allegiance to the pre-existing work might be a detriment. For all of the movie’s successes, the brutal fact remains that it can be a bit of a slog at times. (Mystics scenes, I’m glaring at you). Excitingly, pacing issues that marred the film are more than resolved here.
It feels like the writing staff, including Lost’s Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Dark Crystal expanded universe author J.M. Lee are aiming to develop a new pop culture juggernaut for a post-Game of Thrones world, and they largely succeed by crafting a story that is complete yet kicks the door open for future tales to come. This is no simple task given the problems inherent in writing a prequel.
The original Dark Crystal begins years after all the Gelflings, save for two, have been wiped from the face of Thra by Skeksis leaders who have corrupted the Crystal of Truth to drain them of their living essence. So anyone who has seen the film goes into this series with the foreknowledge that these new characters are all doomed. Or are they? Age of Resistance plants seeds suggesting that the future glimpsed on the big screen isn’t carved in stone. Or crystal for that matter. This is one of the more interesting divergences from the source material that helps make this show very much its own thing.
Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance achieves the impossible task of making viewers forget they aren’t watching flesh-and-blood actors on screen. The characters created by the Jim Henson Workshop feel familiar yet exotic, light years away from the sort of Uncanny Valley issues that would have plagued this show were it done strictly by computer imagery. But more than that, the series elevates puppetry to the next level by daringly pushing the artform to its very limits (as well as having fun deconstructing it, such as in a memorable sequence where characters put on their own puppet show to fill in narrative gaps bridging the series and the film).
Director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) had the unenviable task of attempting to bring these non-human characters to life, a challenge that could have easily been a disaster. His mastery of dynamic action sequences and a commitment to keeping CGI enhancements to a minimum – you really won’t believe how much of the series is pure traditional puppetry – is the stuff Hollywood legends are made of. In an unorthodox project like this, good scripts and fantastic voice acting can only take you so far. It is making these performances feel seamlessly alive that is the ultimate challenge. And Leterrier does, wonderfully.
This being the hellscape that is 2019, it is impossible to watch the greed and corruption that the Skeksis get involved with and not think of America’s current political climate. (Be prepared for an onslaught of thinkpieces comparing the Skeksis Emperor to our current president). By reinventing a nearly 40-year-old piece of IP as a contemporary political allegory might be the greatest feather in Age of Resistance’s cap.
Somewhat more subtle is the series’ commentary on same sex marriage and enviornmentalism, issues that demand attention as our society continues to careen backwards. “The Rainbow Connection” is nowhere to be found here, but the show reminds us that we are all bound together as humans in this world of chaos.
Over the course of these 10 episodes we get to know and care about Rian, Brea, and Deet, as well as their associates, the evil Skeksis, and the world of Thra intimately. From the technological advances in puppetry that will be dissected for years to come to the sheer miracle that is reinvigorating a property that was long forgotten by mainstream viewers, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a triumph of creativity and entertainment. Here’s hoping the saga finally becomes the pop culture behemoth it so deserves to be.
Chris Cummins is a Philadelphia-based writer, producer, and comics historian. Read more of his work here. You can find him on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion