By Noah Howard
According to Rolling Stone, Jim Henson invented the world of “The Dark Crystal” while stranded in the middle of a snowstorm. The soft-spoken, bearded creator of “The Muppets,” and the voice of the lovable Kermit the Frog, must’ve been miserable surrounded by frigid, swirling darkness, because the world concocted by the singer of “The Rainbow Connection” was a far cry from the musical, cheery antics of Fozzy Bear and the Swedish Chef. His high-fantasy universe was a twisted nightmare that, by its mere existence, teaches an unwanted lesson: everyone has a dark side.
“The Dark Crystal” released in 1982, two years before the introduction of the PG-13 rating that it clearly deserved. It was otherworldly and disturbing, the “Coraline” of the ’80s that disturbed and enchanted a generation of children lured in by its kid-friendly creator and PG labeling. The film, featuring a universe comprised of elaborate sets and even more elaborate puppets, pulled no punches: viewers would be treated to a demonic face crumbling to dust like crumpled paper, a horned woman capable of pulling her eyeball out of her socket, man-sized spider-beetles, and a massive crystal that liquifies the life-force of innocent elven creatures called Gelflings by pulling their souls out from their eyes.
Yet, like the Gelfling transfixed by the holy crystal that would be their doom, it’s impossible to look away from the screen while watching “The Dark Crystal.” The villainous Skeksis, a horrific combination of crow and bloated velociraptor, are endlessly disturbing, and yet, like the rest of the film, are strangely beautiful, so intricate in their detail and so impeccably performed that it’s impossible to see them as anything other than artistic masterpieces. The film was twisted, yes, but it was also stunning.
“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” turns down the darkness while elevating the artistry: it is a work of incredible beauty, far beyond the boundaries of the original film, “The Lord of the Rings” to Henson’s “Hobbit” It’s Netflix’s most ambitious, and arguably most successful, project to date, ten hours of limitless wonder in one of the most well-developed worlds since “Star Wars.”
But the universe of “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” is even bolder than that of “Star Wars.” While the galaxy far, far away still told its story primarily through human actors, the world of “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” (like the original film) contains not a single human, nor any creature that closely resembles one. Every performance of every character is embodied primarily by an inanimate puppet that cannot itself perform. Sure, “Age of Resistance”’s star-studded cast might be a selling point on paper, but only one actor (Mark Hamill, in comfortable territory as the sly Skeksi scientist) truly lends anything unique to his character. These puppets live and die by the performances of the puppeteers. Their work is unbelievable in the literal sense: the idea that these breathing, richly emoting creatures are the collaborative efforts of a team of people holding sticks, strings, remotes, and shoving their hands in unholy places is ludicrous. At one point in the show, a puppet made me cry. A puppet made me cry.
Do you “forget that you’re watching puppets?” — as director Louis Letterier states is the goal of the show in the behind-the-scenes documentary? No; mouth movements sometimes fail to align with the recorded lines, Gelflings’ faces are largely stuck in place in a way that doesn’t resemble any actual lifeform, and the need to hide certain aspects of the characters from the camera’s view becomes all too apparent in the awkward and clunky fight scenes. But if realism was the goal, it would have been both cheaper and easier to simply use CGI, of which “Age of Resistance” has preciously little. And at the end of the day, the flawed tangibility of the on-screen characters makes the world approachable and tactile in a way that no computer images could replicate.
Is the writing weak? Definitely. Though better than the original film, “Age of Resistance” is a show where Good is Good and Evil is Evil, where a band of heroes, all of whom are endearing yet generic archetypes, go from place to place to get thing after thing, all in the name of a mighty, all-righteous Quest. This is a show in which villains endlessly cackle, protagonists say things like, “No, we did it,” and where the central metaphor for global warming doesn’t hit the nail on the head with a hammer as much as with a plummeting anvil. If you want your fantasy show rich in deep characterization and intrigue, rewatch “Game of Thrones” (well, the first four seasons).
But “Age of Resistance” doesn’t care much about storytelling — it’s content to be a relatively simple yet entertaining fairytale. This is, instead, an exercise in world-building, one of the most impressive to grace a screen at any time in the history of the medium of filmmaking. Artificially shepherding characters from one location to another may sound tedious in theory, but in practice it allows the show to pepper every episode with stunningly and lovingly rendered new locations and creatures that never cease to surprise, making the series approximate to a ten-hour version of the Mos Eisley Cantina with far better cinematography and infinitely more variety.
The original “Dark Crystal” was a mediocre film but a brilliant display of artistry. “Age of Resistance” builds on all of its strengths while ironing out its worst weaknesses, creating a show that is unlike anything seen before (including its predecessor) and that allows the best creature creators, puppeteers, and set designers in the world to run wild with Netflix’s bottomless pockets. Henson died tragically young, but as the curmudgeonly Mother Augrha speaks in his original “Dark Crystal” story, sometimes the end is really the beginning. Jim Henson might not be around to see it, but “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” keeps his art and vision thriving, creating, in a world of corporate-manufactured badly-aging CGI, a fantasy universe that made of lifeless materials that is nonetheless immortal.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.