‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’ Will Awe You With Its Artistic Wizardry
Netflix has answered the call to adventure with “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” a prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 beloved cult classic. The first season of the new fantasy series is a remarkable showcase of technological wizardry, old school puppetry craft and imaginative storytelling. The level of care and attention to detail paid to every aspect of the world is simply astonishing. If only the same could be said for the plotting. “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is a must-watch series for any serious fan of puppetry but only a maybe must-watch series for those who aren’t die-hard fans of epic fantasy; the simple reason being that the program is meticulously overproduced and a little cliché. But that is very much a part of “The Dark Crystal’s” overall throwback appeal; all issues aside the series is well worth watching for its artistic achievement alone.
An extended, expository prologue (narrated by Sigourney Weaver) introduces viewers to the land of Thra and its people, the Gelflings — a race of Elf-like creatures of which there are seven clans. It is a world that once lived in harmony, in perfect balance, before an outside evil arrived and disturbed the natural order of things. These dark beings from another world call themselves the Skeksis — vile, bird-like, raptor creatures who have used their dark sciences to bewitch the kingdoms of Thra. Most Gelflings are oblivious to the fact that they have slowly been deceived and enslaved by a race of hunters who long to live forever off the very life essence of others.
The prologue also informs us that a wise and ancient, druid-like being named Aughra (Donna Kimball) once harnessed the life-giving power of the great Crystal of Truth, to bring perfect coexistence into being. When the Skeksis learned of the magic gemstone’s potential, they turned the sorceress’ attention towards the stars with their knowledge of astronomy, convincing Aughra to place the crystal in their care. For a thousand years since, the Skeksis have ruled over Thra, draining the crystal of its essence in order to prolong their greedy and unnatural long life, but its power seems to have been drained dry.
In tropey, but charming fantasy fashion the show follows three Gelfling archetypes from different factions. Rian (voiced by Taron Edgerton), a young castle guard from the Stonewall Clan of the warrior Gelflings, Brea (Ana Taylor Joy), a princess of the Vapra of the Gelflings of high culture, and Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), a caretaker of the earthly Grottan clan who has foreseen a terrible prophecy of something called the Darkening, which the Emperor of the Skeksis (Jason Isaacs) plans to unleash. The series parallels the backstabbing court intrigue and grotesque laboratory experiments of the Skeksis with the more quest-oriented plotlines of the Gelfling characters as they rally to rebel against the evil dominion from another world.
Structure is one of ‘The Dark Crystal’s biggest foibles. The show stretches what probably would have sufficed as one epic film across ten lengthy episodes, but you know where the show is headed. Worldbuilding and immeasurable details are woven into the story, but the plot beats are so tired that any season genre reader will predict them coming. Like any great fantasy story, the show is constructed around a series of try and fail cycles, but too many obstacles feel like cliché checkboxes that only halts the progress of the program, rather than enrich its overall immersive experience.
The Skeksis are also inherently more captivating to watch than the Gelfings, and one factor of that is the voice cast. Ridiculously talented character actors like Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, Benedict Wong and Keegan-Michael Key round out the chaotic court of vulturous villains. You can feel the cackling fun all of them are having inhabiting such deliciously evil roles with only the power of their voice. Comparatively, the Gelfling characters come off as not only standard, but sometimes indistinct. It definitely does not help that their design — the deliberate emptiness of the Grottan eyes specifically — make certain characters facial expressions almost indistinguishable. You can tell the personality of every Skeksis by how they speak and how they movie. By contrast, a triad of Vapra sisters are virtually interchangeable from a visual standpoint.
Still, a few quibbles aside, practical puppeteering is the greatest strength of “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” but focusing so much on it may have revealed a larger weakness. Everything plays second fiddle to the production design and sometimes that’s as much of a curse as it is a blessing to a series of such grand vision. The climactic battle of the season, a hand-to-hand combat, is constrained by a combination of factors, whereas any sequence involving flying — where the camera can swoop free and capture the action — soars like a scene transposed straight from a small child’s daydream.
Each set draws the eye and imagination in immediately, but you almost become more intrigued by the possibilities of the world than the story itself as a result of all of the great design work. Even when immersed in the magical world of Thra, what should feel organic often plays as mechanical. Too many plot beats feel repeated rather than genuinely captivating cinematic moments captured wondrously. While old-fashioned creativity, nostalgia and love may have been passionately channeled into its very essence, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” comes off as too visibly constructed, like preordained franchise building, with very little being resolved and cliffhangers running rampant, as the streaming service sets the stage for its “Dark Crystal” future. In the end, the new Netflix series is enchanting, if overzealous, with a visual journey far more entrancing than this season’s final destination.
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” begins streaming Aug. 30 on Netflix.