Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Childhood’s End: Finding Meaning in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

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The story goes that one of the first screenings of The Dark Crystal for suited investors went very, very badly. After the credits rolled and the lights came up, there was silence in the room. One by one, each person walked out of the theater.

You can hardly blame them. This was 1982, and Jim Henson was known around the world for cuddly, family-friendly puppet fare. It was a label he often resisted and occasionally resented—Henson never saw puppets as inherently for children, and had always wanted to make riskier, more complex work. But investors and the general public, not surprisingly, balked. The Dark Crystal was strange, frightening, and bleak—not at all what anyone was expecting from the creator of the Muppets and a host of memorable Sesame Street characters.

What those investors saw was a very typical fantasy story rendered in a deeply weird way, an epic that was simultaneously intimate, all of it happening decades before The Lord of the Rings convinced Hollywood that high fantasy films could be mainstream hits. The Dark Crystal had terrifying monsters, a hero and heroine on a quest, and a narrative universe created entirely from scratch, all of it brought to life with sculptures and (then unheard of) animatronic puppetry. It was too frightening for children and too weird for almost everyone else, and it flopped.

I still don’t know exactly what it was that made me latch on to The Dark Crystal as a child, but latch on I did. Maybe it was the melancholy—every other age-appropriate property around me was relentlessly cheerful, while The Dark Crystal depicted a post-genocidal world full of frightening and vicious creatures. Maybe it was the sheer otherworldliness of it—everything on that screen was alien, every plant, rock, and cloud looked unfamiliar. Maybe it was an early fascination with the frightening and grotesque that would grow and turn into a full-on horror obsession by my teens.

Or maybe it was the sincerity. If there’s one thing that unites almost every Henson production, it’s a distinct lack of sarcasm. Sure, the Muppets make bad puns and tease each other, and they make plenty of references to pop culture. But ultimately they’re very, very serious about being kind to each other and building a better world. And most of the time they were so good at it that a lot of us couldn’t help but buy into their worldview.

Until recently, that is. Sesame Street is still going strong, but in other Henson and Henson-adjacent productions that super-sincere sensibility just doesn’t play as well anymore, despite attempts to tweak the formula. Sometimes it works—I loved the 2011 The Muppets, which somehow found that sweet combination of sincerity and self-deprecating humor while remaining very true to the spirit of the original Muppet movies. The Muppets also work well in short bursts, as the creators discovered with a wildly popular series of YouTube videos. But then you have The Happytime Murders, other recent Muppet movies, and new incarnations of The Muppet Show, which have mostly landed with a thud (or in the case of Happytime, with a Razzie-level splat). The Henson mood is a very hard needle to thread in a media-saturated, eye-rolly world.

And so now we have Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a massive reboot / prequel that expands on the original’s lore for a 2019 audience, plenty of whom are diehard fans of the original, but some of whom will come in cold. Luckily it’s a prequel, so it’s really not necessary to know anything about the original film.

To say I had high expectations is an understatement. Back in the mid and late 80s I wore out my Dark Crystal book-and-tape combo, checked out The Tale of the Dark Crystal from the local public library at least a dozen times, and forced everyone around me to watch the movie until the poor VHS cassette could barely operate anymore. I wrote Frank Oz a very serious letter (after Jim Henson had passed away) with condolences and very detailed ideas for a Dark Crystal sequel. My dear mother made me a homemade Kira costume for Halloween, complete with oversized Spock ears, which I wore constantly (no one had any idea who I was, but I didn’t care). I’ve been making and consuming Dark Crystal fanfiction and fan art for years. And I’d been wary of almost all the rumblings I’d heard about sequels and prequels, which were said to include heavy use of CGI in place of puppets (ugh) or to just scrap the puppets altogether in favor of animation.

But holy cow, Netflix got it right. I might have a few quibbles, but they’re tiny. Age of Resistance blew me away.

Watching the show has been emotional, to put it mildly. Like I said, it’s good—it’s beautifully rendered, beautifully acted, terrifying in places, and filled with moments of real emotional power. But it also forced me to return to a very specific place that I think the show requires you to be in—a place of childlike sincerity that I’ve long since left behind. It wasn’t easy. The first episode in particular is a bit overwhelming (and awkward, if I’m being honest)—sensory overload in both good and bad ways, very flowery language, and just the adjustment of being in a world that’s almost entirely populated by animatronics. It also suffers from classic first episode problems in any sort of grand epic, in that it’s almost all character and world introductions.

By the second episode, though, the spell was cast. I was back in that place of childhood wonder, or at least in touch with it. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t completely cut off from that part of myself. I felt myself drifting into this world again, letting the real world fall away. By the fourth episode it felt jarring to turn on the lights and make dinner.

It’s also jarring to watch Age of Resistance in an age of memes, massive fan communities, and social media. This is a world I would have loved to inhabit as a child—before we had a home computer I searched desperately for tiny scraps of Dark Crystal ephemera and found very little. Now I’m drowning in gifs, snarky tweets, YouTube clips, and merch. A universe and a film that were once defined for me by how little I knew about them—and by the original film’s brevity— are now suddenly awash in detail. And there are suddenly a dozen of new characters to love and hate, where before there were only a few.

But what makes me truly teary, I think, is yet again the show’s sincerity. It is frequently brutal and grim, but many of its characters exude a genuine kindness and childlike joy that come across as entirely believable. These are creatures who truly believe, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, that their world can be saved, and that the deep rifts in their society can be healed. In a real world where it’s very, very hard to believe that anymore, Age of Resistance’s dogged optimism feels like a second level of rebellion.

Sincere isn’t the same as saccharine, thankfully, and while the show has a deep sense of wide-eyed wonder and a firm belief in the inherent power of unity, it is most definitely a tragedy. It’s not a spoiler to say that this is a prequel that takes place before, in theory, every single member of this world’s dominant species are brutally slaughtered (save two), so you go in knowing that whatever triumphs these characters might experience, they’re ultimately going to meet a bad end. And there’s something refreshing about that very genuine sadness—real tragedy isn’t so common in popular media anymore, and when it’s done well, it’s cathartic.

Like Netflix’s wonderful She-Ra reboot, Age of Resistance is also careful about its updates. Where the original made a boy the center and a (much more capable) girl the sidekick, Age of Resistance (which pulls a lot of its story threads from a wonderful series of Dark Crystal YA novels by J.M. Lee) gives us a matriarchal society and multiple female characters. One of them even has two dads. The monstrous Skeksis also seem to be coded with a bit more gender ambiguity. But thankfully there are almost no winks toward the modern world or snarky in-jokes. Occasionally someone will use a word that feels out of place (I rolled my eyes when SkekTek the Scientist described his new essence-draining chair as having “upgrades”), but it’s rare. The crone Aughra gets a chance to be sarcastic, but it feels natural coming from a character who was always crotchety and abrasive.

(We also learn something about Skeksis anatomy that I kind of wish I didn’t know. But Henson always had a thing for brief moments of body humor, so I’ll allow it.)

Of course remarkable advances in puppetry and CGI combinations are on full display, and they result in characters that look very, very much like the originals—in the case of the Skeksis, basically indistinguishable from them—but manage to be slightly more lifelike. (One common complaint about the original film is that, for all the animatronic wizardry on display, the Gelfling protagonists seemed lifeless in a way that Muppets never were.) Thanks to CGI, Age of Resistance Gelflings roll their eyes and express shock and grief with more detail, but the effect is seamless, and we always feel like we’re watching a puppet, not a computerized image. The Skeksis’ tongues never stop moving, which is a particularly creepy touch. To my immense relief, CGI in Age of Resistance is used to enhance an already living, breathing, and very tangible universe, not overpower it.

Director Louis Leterrier is being praised for his dynamic camera style, which makes everything look livelier (and was a uniquely challenging way to film groups of puppets operated by multiple people). Still, I wish the camera had slowed down a bit more frequently, allowing us to focus more clearly on the beautifully constructed sets and creatures. The original film kept the camera fairly still and favored slow tracking shots (which might have contributed to criticisms that it was, narrative-wise, a slog). Leterrier’s style certainly keeps the pace lively, but it often robs us of time to ponder.

The show ends on a bittersweet note—there’s triumph, but there’s a high body count, and of course the knowledge that any triumph is fleeting. That sense of darkness informs every frame of Age of Resistance. But I disagree with some who’ve argued that knowing the grim endpoint has hamstrung the creators (who appear to be hoping for a second season). Yes, this isn’t going to end well, but rather than seeing that as a wall to beat their fists against, the Age of Resistance team seem to it as a creative challenge. Knowing the endpoint doesn’t mean that the path toward it can’t take a lot of interesting turns.

Knowing that the peace-loving Gelfling are doomed also doesn’t mean, as one writer put it, that “pacifism is for losers.” Rather, it reflects the harsh reality that pacifism can still get you killed, and that the right choice is frequently the hard, messy one. And more than a bleak outlook, I’d say what Age of Resistance gives us is an idea that my childhood self would certainly have embraced, even if my adult self struggles with it: the idea that resistance itself is worthwhile, even when it’s doomed. Even when it might make you a pariah, or get you killed. I’m grateful that a part of me, however small, still believes in the sincerity of that message.

2 comments on “Childhood’s End: Finding Meaning in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

  1. Mike
    September 17, 2019

    Check out DefunctTV’s incredible series on Jim Henson. I learned a lot. This is just the final one: https://youtu.be/4SfsynRHZK0

  2. Lindsay Nelson
    September 17, 2019

    Thank you!

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This entry was posted on September 16, 2019 by in Film and tagged , , , , .

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