Look beyond the puppets, cast aside any preconceived notions about fantasy as a genre, and try to forget you’re looking at some of the strangest creatures to grace your screen in decades, and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance reveals itself to be something unexpected: one of the most radical and political shows you’ll watch all year.
It’s been 37 years since the cinematic original introduced viewers to the mesmerising planet of Thra. A labour of love by creator Jim Henson, the film flopped on release but went on to become a cult classic, slowly building a legion of fans besotted with the strange world and the intricate puppetry and animatronics that brought it to life. Unlike its studio-mate Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal had no on-screen humans at all, instead introducing viewers to the likes of the evil Skeksis, a cruel race of vulture-like creatures, the mysterious urRu mystics, and Jen and Kira, the last surviving Gelflings in the desolate world, drained of its vitality by the greedy Skeksis.
Yet though replete with barely-glimpsed lore and overflowing with ideas, the film was ultimately a fairly straightforward fantasy adventure, one that came to a decisive end. While comic books have explored Thra after the events of the film, for Age of Resistance, Netflix and the Jim Henson Company have gone the prequel route, exploring how the Skeksis came to power and the Gelflings were all but eradicated.
It proves a wise choice. For long-term fans, it proves a chance to see Thra in its glory days, a dazzling world of imagination, where the seven Gelfling clans still thrive and the barren landscapes of the film are instead full of life. But having a more populous world means a more cultured one, and it’s here where the show packs in its most interesting ideas.
The Gelflings – not humans and barely humanoid, but our windows into this bizarre world nonetheless – are revealed to be disparate and diverse. From the oceanic Sifa to the war-like Spritons, there’s a range of cultures and ideologies explored here. Incredible design work on the parts of returning co-creators Brian and Wendy Froud infuse these societies with distinct identities, displayed subtly in architecture and fashion, and even in nuanced differences in physical mannerisms.
We get the closest look at three tribes through the core cast. Rian (voiced by Taron Egerton and puppeted by Neil Sterenberg), a guard in the Skeksis’ castle, hails from the Stonewood Clan, a forest-dwelling tribe known for their dedication and honour. In the golden city of Ha’rar, the Vapra have become obsessed with high culture and the finer things in life, becoming a haughty upper class, though the princess Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy, Alice Dinnean) is more interested in history and hidden knowledge. Lastly, in the subterranean caves of the Grottan Clan, animal-loving Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel, Beccy Henderson) is one of the first to uncover “The Darkening”, a malicious force corrupting nature itself.
Age of Resistance is set a nebulous period of time before the film, but a thousand “trine” after the Skeksis have arrived on Thra, and it’s around their machinations that the trio of unlikely heroes’ journeys coalesce. Regal and ostentatious, the Skeksis came bearing gifts before entrenching themselves in society as lords, demanding fealty for their “protections” and for uplifting the natives. In reality, they drain the resources from the land and its people, elongating their own prosperity and luxurious lives, while manipulating the Gelflings crushed underfoot into believing it’s all for their own good.
Its damnation of craven, greedy rulers is not a subtle metaphor, nor is it the series’ only one. The immortal Aughra, mother and protector of Thra and one of the few returning characters from the film (voiced by Donna Kimball, puppeted by Kevin Clash), is waylaid by the Skeksis, who give her an orrery (a model of the planets) – distracting her with visions of the universe when her attention should be on the Skeksis’ dark manipulations. The Skeksis Chamberlain, skekSil (Simon Pegg, Warrick Brownlow-Pike) is a walking political propaganda campaign, a Dominic Cummings or Steve Bannon as a literal vulture whose role is to “plant stories in ground, watch grow into truth. Keep Gelfling looking over shoulder, so they won’t ever see what’s right in front of them.”
The series even deals with racism and classism, from Deet being ostracised from other Gelfling tribes because of her Grottan roots, to the Vapra seeing themselves as better than other clans because of their generations-long privilege. It’s all far more challenging and demanding of the audience than the original movie, and better for it.
But Age of Resistance isn’t just an exercise in metaphor – like its cinematic predecessor, it’s a breathtaking, sweeping fantasy of considerable ambition and scale. With its disparate story threads, with distinct heroes pursuing their own quests – at least to begin with – it even has a hint of Game of Thrones about it, a similarity perhaps nodded to by a sweeping aerial pan of Thra’s regions and the various homelands of the Gelfling clans in the first episode. There’s charm and imagination packed into every shot, down to the smallest details of the world, from the wheels of the Skeksis’ chariots being formed by ensnared trundlebugs to cages being locked by living, metallic snakes, or a gentle plant sprite revealing itself to be a vast colony creature. Even clothing and fabric seems to be alive on Thra.
The series also walks the fine line between incorporating nearly 40 years of advancements in puppetry and animatronic technology, and maintaining the same aesthetic as its filmic forebear. The Skeksis are a bit more distinct from one another here, but as sinister and terrifying as they were on the big screen, while Gelflings and Aughra benefit from greater dexterity and more expressive faces, without losing their familiar looks.
The biggest shift comes from director and executive producer Louis Leterrier – best known for The Transporter films – who shoots the whole series in a far more dynamic fashion. Along with judicious, restricted use of CGI to gently enhance some of the more active scenes – a chariot escape in episode five being a particular delight – Age of Resistance manages to deliver enough action to satisfy a modern audience.
Best of all, it has room to breathe. The Dark Crystal crammed a lot into its 93 minute runtime back in 1982, but with Netflix’s now-customary 10 episode season, it has roughly eight times the space to more thoroughly explore Thra and its inhabitants. The result is something as creepy and unsettling as the original, but with more heart and a more powerful, political message for the real world bursting through the fantasy veneer.
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