Television

Although rebooting Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal may seem a strange choice, the Netflix prequel Age of Resistance is technically impressive and speaks to contemporary concerns. By Geordie Williamson.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

A scene from the Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
Credit: Kevin Baker / Netflix

The question raised by the arrival of a series-length prequel to the 1982 Jim Henson film The Dark Crystal is why? Why would those cutting-edge content mavens and algorithm worshippers at Netflix turn to puppetry in an era dominated by digital animation? And if such a decision was to be made, why reboot one of the dark outliers of Henson’s career, when the most successful and beloved puppeteer of the previous century had so many audience-friendly strings to his bow?

Finally, why retool the story of Thra, the vivid homeworld of the original movie, as a cautionary tale about ecological collapse? The answers have to do with the enduring virtues of The Dark Crystal, but they are also to do with how our current situation has sharpened the point of the story this prequel has to tell.

Yes, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance feeds off generational nostalgia – hippie boomers spinning fables for Gen X and Y kids, a field in which Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Henson remain the undisputed masters – but this new series trades in the New Age-y elements of the original for the urgencies of the present.

The same quest elements are in place for both efforts. Each centres on the crystal that serves as a visible register of those energies crucial to the health of Thra and all life upon it. The crystal has either been fractured or contaminated by misuse, and it falls to those most attuned to its power – the gentle Gelfling – to restore the crystal to wholeness and health.

Age of Resistance takes place long before the events described in The Dark Crystal, though it has been a thousand years since Mother Aughra, a singular being who has protected the crystal since time immemorial, allowed a race of creatures known as the Skeksis (those big, bad reptilian creatures who were the stuff of a million childhood nightmares in the ’80s) to tend to it in her stead, while she devotes centuries at a time to stargazing in her observatory.

But the Skeksis have deceived her. In the long interim, like wizened one-percenters undergoing blood transfusions in some Swiss clinic, they have dipped deep into the crystal’s reserves to replenish themselves, to the point of exhausting its plenitude. Worse still, the Skeksis’ moral deformity has polluted the crystal. That darkness has begun to seep out into the world, setting in train an ecological disaster called “the darkening”.

As this darkening begins to spread across Thra, blighting the world’s vibrancy and variousness, the seven tribes of the Gelfling remain blithely unaware. They have been inculcated over the generations with the idea of blind service to the Skeksis, who have established themselves as higher beings whose every need must be unquestioningly met.

The new series is set in motion by a chance discovery made by a Skeksis who serves as court scientist: the crystal may be used to drain the essence of creatures, distilling them to a rejuvenating elixir. When some curious young Gelfling are caught in a forbidden part of the Skeksis castle, the opportunity is not wasted. Hidden from view, Rian, son of the head of the palace guard, watches in horror as his childhood friend is killed for her essence.

The scene is genuinely frightening, and the malevolence of the Skeksis is, for Rian at least, laid bare. When they realise that Rian has survived to bear witness to their atrocity, the Skeksis seek to turn the rest of the Gelfling against him, framing him for the murder and forcing him into exile. They also send a Skeksis known as the Hunter to assassinate him.

The tensions that flow from these decisions only increase as the series unfolds. Rian joins with a small band of believers – Deet, a kind and constitutionally optimistic Gelfling from a despised underground tribe, and the scholarly Princess Brea, among others – and gains the support of that small cast of characters who have a privileged perspective on the Skeksis’ true nature.

This includes Mother Aughra herself, woken from long astronomical distraction by Thra’s pain, and by the few remaining members of the urRu, or Mystics, the species who were twinned with the Skeksis before the crystal fractured. The Mystics, grizzled and ponderous, have evolved differently from their former brethren, retaining their gravity and wisdom as the Skeksis take on the trappings of European feudal lords.

Those who recall the original film will recognise the contours of Rian, Brea and Deet’s mission, which turns out to be both a recapitulation and an expansion of the parent work. The moral of The Dark Crystal, with its suggestion of underlying unities, its communitarian ethos and its alertness to ecological damage, has become only more apposite over time.

Age of Resistance restates these themes with contemporary emphasis. It takes certain salient real-world clashes – pitting those who would divide by race, colour and creed, and those who would hoard precious resources for themselves, against a last-ditch effort at collective action for the common good and, indeed, collective survival.

One key difference between the twin endeavours, divided by almost four decades, involves technology. The original Dark Crystal took five years to make. It required new materials to sheathe puppets with and demanded fresh tricks to drive the subtle machinery of their bodies. We’re talking fishing wire, bicycle chains and miniature pulley systems: old-school solutions laborious to bring to life.

Meanwhile, in the present, it took a new generation of a dozen mainly British puppeteers just one year and 180 shooting days to make the 10 episodes of Age of Resistance. Analogue efforts remain front and centre, for the most part. To body forth one of the Skeksis, puppeteers donned large broiling costumes strapped to a harness weighing the equivalent of a five-year-old child, while stage sets allowed for realistic crowd scenes. But remote-control tech, 3D-printed controls and CGI provided enormous assistance in the new series. Facial expressions and eye movements – even liberal amounts of snot, blood and gore – added a layer of verisimilitude to the puppets’ actions.

It’s worth lingering on the technical achievements of Age of Resistance because the series creators seem keen to suspend viewers’ disbelief while never entirely dissuading us that these are puppets on screen. At one point in the series, the puppets themselves stage a puppet show, as if to remind us of the deus ex machina in the enterprise.

And although the team has gone to great lengths to use the tight framing and rapid cuts beloved of action-movie directors, it is still possible to make out glimpses of human bodies ducking and weaving behind their mannequins. The makers evidently want our perception of the artificiality of the undertaking to be overcome, but only in part.

Nonetheless, this approach does permit periods of sustained narrative immersion. Viewers are mostly able to put aside the staged nature of the series and concentrate on that empathetic communion with characters and attentiveness to plot that we automatically grant human actors and even digital animations.

But while the prequel trails wisps of utopian hope, it has a tougher message to sell. In Age of Resistance, the flabbier trappings of ’70s spirituality that informed the movie – which was partly inspired by Henson’s reading of the Seth Material, a New Age text – are burnt away by the extremity of narrative event. The Seth Material suggested that reality was for each individual to discover and mould for themselves, but our contemporary situation suggests the opposite – that politics, technology, economics and environmental disruption are moulding us in turn. Netflix’s series is concerned with the ways in which idealism is modulated and tested by the blunt-force trauma of the real.

This is not to say that the series can’t be enjoyed on its own terms. It is ambitious in scale and often beautiful in its unfolding. The necessarily wooden affect of the cast is swaddled in luminous, digitally generated imagery, while the clever apportioning of voice roles – to actors as disparately talented as Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Sigourney Weaver and Lena Headey – allows viewers to at least aurally distinguish between creatures moulded from the same latex. The dialogue is often witty and suggests a sophistication of thought behind the recitation of old epic tropes.

Some positive early reviews have praised the show in spite of its status as puppet theatre with CGI trimmings, rather than because of that odd decision. But this outré means of storytelling should be seen, as its creators evidently wish, as the central point, not a charming technological anomaly akin to releasing a documentary on VHS only, or a single on seven-inch vinyl rather than through Spotify.

And this may be because, as T. S. Eliot put it, humankind “cannot bear too much reality”. When your subject is cataclysm, when your characters face a world set to change beyond reckoning, the distancing effect of puppetry is not a retro affectation but a necessary prophylactic.

 

Arts Diary

CLASSICAL Australian Brandenburg Orchestra: Next Generation Baroque

Melbourne Recital Centre, September 21-22

SCULPTURE Shirley Macnamara: Dyinala, Nganinya

QAGOMA, Brisbane, until March 1

INSTALLATION Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act

ACCA, Melbourne, until November 17

MUSICAL Just Let the Wind Untie My Perfumed Hair

Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, September 26

FESTIVAL The Big Anxiety

UNSW, Sydney, September 27—November 9

MULTIMEDIA Olympia

NGV Australia, Melbourne, until March 15

SCULPTURE Perth Brutal: Dreaming in Concrete

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until February 3

VISUAL ART Gifting

Penrith Regional Gallery, NSW, until until November 17

MUSIC Meeting Points Series: Leaf and Shadow

The Pavilion, Melbourne, September 22

VISUAL ART New Woman

Museum of Brisbane, until March 15

VIDEO ART Leyla Stevens

UTS Gallery, Sydney, until November 8

CINEMA The Australian New Wave

Thornbury Picture House, Melbourne, until October 1

VISUAL ART Our Mob 2019: Art by South Australian Artists

Adelaide Festival Centre, until October 3

OPERA Ghost Sonata

Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne, September 25-28

Last chance

SCULPTURE Angela Valamanesh: About Being Here

Jam Factory, Adelaide, until September 22

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "Crystal thrall". Subscribe here.

Geordie Williamson
is a writer and critic.