Let's Talk About: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

by Tom Grundy, Allen Stroud and Beth Faulds

Let’s Talk About: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
December 13, 2019 Buanzo

We couldn’t decide who should get to review Netflix’s latest fantasy tour de force — so Tom gave his thoughts and then Allen and Beth Faulds, our guest contributor, responded. Tom is new to the franchise, Beth saw the original film in the cinema the first time around, and Allen has bumped up against the franchise once or twice in a professional context. 

Tom:

The Making Of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance documentary, on Netflix, lines up the cast and crew of Netflix’s new ten-episode fantasy prequel to the 1982 film to talk about how much the film meant to them and affected their childhoods. If they and similar coverage are to be believed, The Dark Crystal had a cultural impact similar to Star Wars.

It might have for the — apparently quite large — proportion of the production team with ‘Henson’ in their name. But for most other people, the 1982 Jim Henson film The Dark Crystal is mostly known for being a bit shit and less good than Labyrinth. That’s certainly the impression I got when I watched it for the first time. An ambitious, dreamlike, poorly-plotted, and visually spectacular film, it puzzled critics upon release and has only gained ‘cult’ status in recent years, with the forgiveness that nostalgia brings. 

Beth:

I disagree. If you were a child of the right age when it hit theatres or home video, The Dark Crystal movie was like a goddamn secret society. “You should watch this. Yeah, I know they’re puppets, but trust me.” The disgusting, disturbing Skeksis and the plodding, goody-goody Mystics. The Gelflings burdened with the task of saving the world. And, of course, when you’re a kid, you tend to let the word salad world-building flow over you. As important, culturally, as Star Wars? Maybe not. But I was never so viscerally moved by any film. The baddies literally sucked the life out of the lower order beings! Characters were disintegrated, grotesqueries paraded across the screen. The darkness! The horror! And we could get away with watching it because — puppets! I suggest its cult status is a function of the indelible mark it left on so many of my generation. And it may, naturally, colour my view of the series somewhat.

Allen:

Agree with Beth here. The film was a massive, seminal part of my childhood. The lack of impact by comparison to the Star Wars franchise was more down to the commercial deals done for toy lines, sandwich boxes, bedspreads and the like.

Tom:

The new series is a glorious, technicolour feast of original fantasy. There are a smattering of computer-generated bits, mostly to add life to action scenes and animate the puppets’ rictus faces, but it is nearly all done the old-fashioned way. I can’t imagine this making great waves in, say, 1990; but after twenty years of CGI gluttony, a fantasy story told mostly without computers is actually really refreshing. 

Allen:

You’re never going to see me complaining about people being consistent to an original vision. Brian Froud, the original artist, is a genius and The Dark Crystal was a massive showcase of his work which led to people around the world getting to see his ideas. I owned the visual story book as a child and I still have copies of the books they produced — The Art of the Dark Crystal is fabulous.

Tom:

The creature design is marvellous. The animal denizens of the mythical planet of Thra are inventively weird; think Guillermo del Toro, but less scary. Jim Henson famously stipulated that the entire feel of his fantasy world had to be “not like anything on Earth” — and this has clearly carried through. In fact, there appears to be a (perhaps unwarranted) reverential approach to the original film that means that very few of the creatures didn’t first appear in 1982.

It’s stunning, in the same way Stardust was: incredible vistas of sweeping mountain ranges and verdant plains, locales that take your breath away. 

Beth:

They’ve taken the limited palette of the original movie and gone wild. And yet, they’ve done it without really changing what you remember. This is probably another function of watching it when young enough to let imagination fill in all the blanks left by a lower level of technical skill than is possible today. They’ve fleshed out the world with an astonishing abundance of nature, culture, and technology. In much the way The Lord of the Rings fleshes out the world of The Hobbit, this offering is a substantial and meaty bite, and still manages to have space for Fizzgigs.

Tom:

It is also spectacularly, crazily, prodigiously expensive. Netflix appear to have given the Hensons a blank cheque. Filming took place over 80 different sets. Every flower, blade of grass, tree branch, and butterfly was designed by someone, by hand. This makes every scene is a visual delight. 

But perhaps the best example of profligacy is the voice actors. The puppets are voiced by the likes of Mark Strong, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, and Helena Bonham Carter, amongst others. Sigourney Weaver pops in to narrate a few sentences at the series’ opening. Despite having watched most films in which she’s appeared, I didn’t realise it was her — so any benefit her casting brings to the production must be in the big-name association. 

Unless these stars were doing it for the love of the thing, this is a gratuitous expense. Natalie Dormer, for example, plays Onica, the bittiest of bit characters who appears in about two episodes as a bag-carrier for a slightly more memorable bit character. Why is she here? What about this forgettable extra demands the skills of a famous film actor? It is unclear what these (presumably expensive) Hollywooders add that a capable voice actor couldn’t.

Beth:

I would ask the actors. Are they doing it for the cheque, or for the fact that this is a dream project? Simon Pegg nailed the Chancellor’s simpering whimper in a way that can only have come from someone who knew what the ‘love-to-hate’ character meant to fans. Maybe it’s just another notch on his belt in terms of being involved in every great franchise of our childhood (Star Trek, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia… and plenty of others) as if Tim, his character from his TV series Spaced, got all his dreams granted at once. But in any case, how many of the big-name actors jumped at the chance because of love?

Allen:

Agreed. There’s massive love for this project. It was seminal to people’s childhoods. Simon Pegg’s Spaced was a confession to his fandom and this is an extension of that, being a part of what he loved. 

Tom:

A good point. Simon Pegg did an absolutely masterful job as the Chancellor, one of the series’ best characters. 

As for the story, though, it’s the same dribblingly forgettable plot as usual: a little band of plucky, photogenic teenagers, set by a Gandalf analogue on a course to liberate the land. The Gandalf figure is the Aughra, an eminently-watchable huffing, stomping old crone, and another of the series’ best characters. The heroes, however, are the sort of insipid paragons of virtue you come across in all claptrap of this nature; their only faults are non-faults like impetuousness or being too trusting, and as soon as they’re introduced to each other they’re best bloody friends, resulting in many a saccharine reference to the magic of friendship. 

I don’t want to be the snooty reviewer claiming every fantasy story has to be Hamlet. Age of Resistance isn’t aggressively formulaic — Netflix are chin-juttingly proud of the ‘strong female characters’ they’ve included, which is fair enough, although ‘strong’ certainly doesn’t mean ‘believable and memorable’ in this case. But it’s still a missed opportunity. 

The hero, Rian, has no discernable characteristics whatsoever. I watched him scamper winsomely across the land for ten hours of my life, and I couldn’t tell you a single thing about his preferences, attitudes, fears or ambitions. What do I know about him? He’s Sad That His Dad’s Dead. Other than that, he’s just the Male Lead from nearly every other adventure story ever to cross the Atlantic in this direction. 

The same goes for the female leads, too. They’re not characters, they’re archetypes. And why do they have to be pretty and young? What would be so wrong with the sword-wielding hero being a bit fat, or queer, or old, or ugly — or anything remotely interesting at all?

Beth:

If I had any criticism it would echo this. Every single lead female is white blonde. Even the Grottan, Deet, is just slightly green in skin and a bit messier of hair. But yes, having three sisters who were of the same clan and looked more or less the same could be confusing at times, especially at the start. Another criticism might be the amount of world-building that was top loaded into an introductory narration. Yes, there are seven clans, (three of which we have very little exploration of), but perhaps this could have been unveiled in less of an info-dump? It did make the first episode or two feel more dry and factual than emotional and engaging.

Allen:

I wouldn’t be that harsh about the plot, but I would say it is a weakness and in many ways a vehicle for the characters and the events to come. It’s surprising how much the nostalgia card plays here. The struggle of Jem and Kyra was desperate, the ending of their species so tragic and final. Despite the fact that we know the Doom of Gelflings is going to happen, there’s a deep resonance to the fellowship and comradeship that connected with me in a way that otherwise, only Lord of the Rings is able to do. 

Tom:

The problem with strong archetypes like that is there’s lack of moral nuance. The Gelfling are charming, wide-eyed Hobbits who spend their days being lovely to each other and making friends with woodland animals. The memorable 1982 villains, the Skeksis, look like zombie birds of prey, who shuffle their rotting carcasses around the set boasting about how nefarious they are. Grimdark this isn’t — it’s pantomime.

The series delights in killing off ancillary characters slowly and dramatically and expecting us to care. In one late episode, a decidedly B-list character carks it over the course of about an hour’s screen time, after having a sword thrust through her. The death is drawn-out and melodramatic — but I barely remembered who the character was and she’d done nothing of note for the entire series. This could be a casualty of production and editing; storyboarded, this character could have been very memorable, with their own interesting arc and fleshed-out personality. Much of that, if it ever existed, has been left on the cutting-room floor, forcing us to watch a laboured death with no emotional skin in the game. 

Allen:

Yes, that wasn’t a great moment in the plot. I think when they got people together they were struggling to deal with the ensemble and give everyone a role, plus killing off a character raises the stakes, right?

Tom:

Age of Resistance is full of this sort of thing. Expecting us to mourn a character they’ve made no attempt to flesh out; expecting us to recognise the ‘bonds of friendship’ between characters who have barely met; expecting us to be moved when a character loses a parent we’ve only heard four or five lines from. With a few exceptions, the characters are wooden, boring archetypes of the genre who spew wooden, boring lines. Think: “We’ve got to stop them!”, “You’ll never get away with this!” and so on. How is it that we routinely make series and films that are astounding in visuals, sound, and effects, but so painfully trite in character and plot? Whether this is a problem for you will really depend on whether you are content to be entertained, or ask to be interested too. You may not. 

Beth:

It’s a kid’s film expanded into a series for adults and kids. I think the audience is going to need to set expectations accordingly. Game of Thrones, it isn’t. But that’s something to be relieved about, considering there are puppets involved! There are plenty of childhood themes we all understood well enough when we were young: saving the world, sacrificing everything for friends, defying parental expectations… I found it interesting enough to watch all the way through without tuning out, and unlike many shows, I limited the number of episodes to watch per night so I could savour it more fully! But your mileage may always vary.

Allen:

I can certainly agree that there are a few well-budgeted productions that get funded for something other than the story. Here, the story of the series isn’t its strongest element, although there are exceptions. SkekMal the Hunter is a new story, drawn from the novels, comics, and briefing materials from 2014. Whenever he’s part of an episode, everything gains pace and tension.

Tom:
The duality of the Mystics and the Skeksis is definitely one of the series’ narrative strengths, and that several of both are left unintroduced only adds to the intrigue. 

I do think the series tells its story spectacularly. I would have happily watched ten episodes of nothing more than the creatures ferreting around, and the locales take your breath away. It is undoubtedly the most impressive piece of puppetry the world has ever seen. 

Once you’ve watched it and its namesake, you’ll no doubt be aware that the end of the Netflix series does not obviously lead in to the beginning of the 1982 film, despite being a prequel. So we can no doubt expect more from the Gelfling and the Skeksis next year.

Beth:

Here’s hoping!

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