‘The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance’ Creates Beautiful New Nightmares
I had a number of fears going into Netflix’s realization of the decades-long gestating Dark Crystal series. Naturally, there was the fear that it would never live up to the adoration I’ve felt for the film since my childhood. Or, worse still, that the new standard bearers of the franchise would take a much-beloved property and Phantom Menace the whole damn thing. It wouldn’t take much to turn a muppet into Jar Jar Binks. Then there was the fear that A-list stars voicing the characters would prove too distracting and pull us out of the fantasy, that the writing would be clumsy or eager to acquiesce to the lowest common denominator, or that the siren song of CGI might be too sweet to ignore, leaving producers to rely more on the power of laptops than practical effects.
But most of all, I feared the Skeksis.
The Terror of Evil Big Birds
Like most people of a certain generation who first saw Jim Henson’s elaborate puppet fantasy as kids, The Dark Crystal always left me with a divided soul. Throughout my life, if anyone asked my feelings about the movie, I’d immediately claim to love it, which I did, and I still do. I’d then follow that statement with a more passionate one about how terrifying the film was, and how that terror never seemed to let up, even well into adulthood. I loved it, yes, but more than anything I feared it.
There was something deeply horrifying about the film’s antagonists, the Skeksis, a race of hulking, evil, vulture-like puppets whose greed and cruelty seemed to know no bounds. Think of an “Upside Down” version of Big Bird, stripped of both feathers and kindness, and given a set of velociraptor fangs and a voice dripping with hungry malice. If ever I needed to drum up some pure, unfiltered nightmare fuel from my youth, my go-to’s from the film world are, in no particular order:the tree scene from Poltergeist; the clown doctors from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure; the Gmork from The Neverending Story; and, of course, the Skeksis. I still get goosebumps when I think about any of those things, but the Skeksis chill my blood like few things ever have.
The last time I attempted to watch The Dark Crystal on video, maybe ten years ago, I needed to go three whiskies deep to drum up enough courage, and still, about thirty minutes in, my limbic system sounded the klaxons to run and my psyche warned me that I’d be risking deep emotional trauma should I decided to continue. So I chased my bourbon with a big ol’ glass of “nope” and watched Seinfeld reruns instead. I simply couldn’t find a way to reconcile my love and fear for this thing.
Facing My Demons
Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid returning to the mystical world of Thra, with all its wonder and peril. I had enough trauma and nightmares in real life without getting Skeksis involved. But as soon as I learned that The Dark Crystal was finally getting its due on Netflix after many decades of wallowing in production limbo, I knew I had no choice but to confront my fears once again. The allure of rediscovering what I adored about this world and these characters was too powerful to ignore. Hence, I talked things over with my therapist, developed some healthy mindfulness and coping strategies, and decided to jump in head first. We can only run from our fears for so long, right? And fer crisssakes, they’re just puppets, man! They’re not really real, you know?!
While I waited for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance to drop last week, I had a good opportunity to acquaint myself with the original. What I found was a fairly conventional Campbellian hero myth set in a strange and distant land filled with creatures of all sorts. The story takes place in the world of Thra one thousand years after “The Great Conjugation,” in which the planet’s life-giving Crystal of Truth fractures, resulting in the birth of two new species: the wise and kind Mystics, and the greedy, gluttonous, evil Skeksis.
Jen, the last Gelfling left alive after the Skeksis’ genocidal purge, journeys deep into the heart of the Skeksi stronghold, the Crystal Castle, to return a shard of the broken crystal, restore balance and harmony to the world, and save Thra from the Skeksis for good. In the process, he’s aided by the only other living Gelfling, Kira, a mystical shaman creature named Aughra, and a canine-like puffball creature called Fizzgig, all while being pursued by the forces of evil, like the terrifying, humanoid/arachnid “Garthim” stormtroopers. Long story short, good prevails, the Crystal is made one, and it turns out that the Mystics and Skeksis were actually two halves of the same alien beings.
Honestly, it’s difficult to explain all of this succinctly without sounding like you’re filled to the eyelids with D&D gobbledegook, but there we are. Thra is a rich and intoxicating fantasy world, easily comparable to Middle Earth, Westeros, Pandora, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, only populated by puppets. Would it still prove so alluring three and a half decades later?
Return To Thra
The first thing we learn about The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, is that it’s a prequel, set a hundred or so years before Jen and Kira’s journey to heal the Crystal of Truth. Instead of a paltry pair of Gelflings, we have seven thriving Gelfling clans, each with distinct attributes, from the fair Vapra to the Stonewood of the forests and cave-dwelling Grottan. In a progressive twist, the clans are matriarchal, each with a female leader known as a “Maudra” who elect one“All Maudra” to lead over them. As in the original, the females have wings, and all Gelflings possess the ability to share memories with one-another in a process called “dreamfasting.”
Then, high in the Crystal Castle, live the putrid Skeksis, just as terrifying now as they were in 1982. Perhaps more, given the advent of high definition. Nothing will keep your appetite at bay like watching the pustules on a Skeksi nose spew forth a fountain of goo in 4K. The attention to detail is immaculate, at once transporting us to a place both hauntingly familiar and vastly more intricate. Netflix has graciously reached into its deep pockets and spent untold millions making Thra bigger, richer, scarier, and ultimately more evocative than the original.
This is a good thing, given that Netflix has a whopping ten hours of story to fill. The narrative begins as the Skeksis learn that the power they siphon from the crystal has weakened. Being evil, they naturally manage to find a way to reverse engineer the Crystal to take life instead of giving it, draining a creature of it’s “essence,” which they can drink to rejuvenate themselves. One taste of the good stuff, and the Skeksis quickly turn full-on junkie.
The only problem is that the first Gelfling they murder for her essence is a princess, and they manage to let a couple of witnesses escape, most notably a palace guard named Rian. Knowing that their plans to kill Gelflings for their essence might not be so cool with the Gelflings, whom they rule, they commence hunting for Rian and his compatriots who carry the sordid truth. So begin the twisting politcal machinations of Age of Resistance, first with the Skeksis unjustly accusing Rian for a murder he witnessed, followed by an attempt to gaslight and sow discord among the seven clans in order to distract them from the Skeksis twisted plans.
The Perils Of Authoritarian Puppets
Sound kind of familiar? It should. The messages of this series aren’t particularly subtle. As the narrative unfolds, it warns us of the perils of authoritarianism, and just how easy and dangerous it is to placate despots instead of standing against them, to buy into their lies even when everyone knows the truth, so as to not rock the boat. We see this time after time through ten episodes as the Gelflings struggle to make sense of the Skeksis actions, eventually, as the title suggests, rise up against them.
But it’s not all walking and talking of politics in the gardens. There’s plenty of action in Age of Resistance, from flying manta rays across the desert to swords and sorcery, even a car chase! Well, in as much as the Skeksis vehicles are cars, seeing that the wheels are actually giant doodlebugs, a brilliant creative flourish. Even so, the action isn’t mindless, and serves the story well. We’re treated to plenty of down time between big set pieces to learn more about the characters.
Here’s where both the writing and acting stand out. The ten hour run-time of the series gives heroes and villains alike plenty of space to converse and soliloquize. IT would surely seem hokey watching large scary puppets say things like ““Do you remember what it was like, before we were rent asunder?” if those puppets didn’t possess the vocal gravitas of Jason Isaacs, brilliant here as the Skeksis Emperor.
Only one or two episodes in, though, it was easy to forget that the voice talent is an impressive list of Hollywood actors that includes Taron Egerton, Helena Bonham Carter, Mark Hamill, real life Gelflings Natalie Dormer and Ana Taylor-Joy, Keegan Michael Key, Harvey Fierrstein, Awkwafina, and so on, with special props to Simon Pegg, who absolutely nails the preening mewls of the Chamberlain from the original so perfectly, I was shocked when I learned it was him. My fears that the A-list talent might prove distracting were swiftly crushed, and finding oneself sucked into the story, and the world that surrounds it, come naturally.
The Skeksis Will Haunt Your Dreams
And what a world it is. Set to a score much more contemporary and sophisticated than the original, the world of Thra is, well, enthralling. We’re treated to sweeping panoramas of forests, deserts, grasslands, and bioluminescent caves, down to the intricate minutia of palaces, libraries, and the Skeksis terrifying throne room. The show’s creators manage to blend CGI with practical effects almost seamlessly, and while nothing screams “a computer did that,” the technology allows puppet movement and expression beyond what would be capable with costumes and makeup alone. You don’t really notice it, but when you do, it’s an impressive feat. Especially when all that attention goes into fueling nightmares.
Oh yes, Netflix hasn’t forgotten how important terror is to this property, so if you think you’re going to watch the new Dark Crystal and not come away with sounds and images that will haunt your dreams, think again. As one of the producers noted, “It’s not like they call it ‘Light Crystal.’” Along with the chilling prospect of a literal soul-sucking machine, there’s also a Borg-like collective of mind control spiders, giant cave worms turned carnivorous by the Dark Crystal’s growing influence, and the poor little Grunaks, whom the Skeksis not only enslave but sew their mouths shut to keep their protestations to a minimum. And let’s not even get into the horror show of watching the Skeksis eat, which should be enough to keep you awake for a good week or two.
In deepening the world of Thra, the writers also owe as much to George R.R. Martin as to Jim Henson. No character seems entirely safe, a dramatic decision that keeps us on the edge of our sofas. And when one beloved character dies, the characters have time to grieve and give her funerary rites, making the moment so emotionally resonant, it’s almost difficult to believe that you’re at the verge of tears because of a puppet.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see how any fan of The Dark Crystal, no matter how traumatized by puppets, can come away not loving Age of Resistance. Halfway through, I didn’t want it to end, and when it did, I immediately wanted more. My biggest criticism is that, since we know this story eventually leads to a wholesale Gelfling genocide, it’s sad to become so deeply invested in these characters. Then again, maybe that’s where future seasons will come in. And please, Netflix, give us more of this wonderful world you’ve revived. After all, I’ve finally broken through my paralyzing fear of Skeksis.
Don’t leave me hanging now.