Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

A little hope in The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance.

I'd only watched The Dark Crystal (the original film from 1982) recently, on something of a quest to unearth any well-crafted fictional spectacles I'd missed growing up. I knew about it, but the trailer never enticed me – it felt like something "other people liked." In the modern dearth of moods and flavours of the cinematic past, though, its impressionistic orchestral score and brooding announcer (more like a gritty Vincent Price than a gritty James Earl Jones) persuaded me to give it a chance. Whether I happened to like it seemed vanishingly relevant as I watched the astronomical level of craft and care evident in every crevice of every shot. It may be niche, but niche implies deep appreciation, and I think the Netflix-commissioned episodic prequel from 2019 was meant to leverage that appreciation decades later.

It was simply great to see, in this era, the bulk of a show's credits recognizing physical craftspeople and puppeteers. It fels like the second-most populous creditees were actors. But a character's voice artist was credited alongside its puppeteer, with no further specificity. This character was played by these two people, period. Excellent. (What wasn't excellent was that Netflix insisted on shrinking the video to a corner the moment each episode's credits began, throwing a wrench into that recognition as well as one of any episode's most carefully-considered transitional moments.)

Sets and puppets. While these physical and real things provided most of the filmed visuals in the manner of the original film, Age Of Resistance, though seeming to resist over-indulgence in this area, still leaned too heavily on CG effects for my liking, with unreined use of swirls, sparkles, and fully-rendered characters that I wish had been puppets. A sentient rock monster and a clan of arachnoids were fully rendered, and I have no doubt that decades ago, these would have been championed with unwavering confidence and expertise by the Jim Henson troupe. After all, a calm and confident "these are puppets, get over it" seemed the prevailing conceit of this universe, and the highly varied Gelflings, Skeksis and Mystics were put forth as fully alive, fully sentient beings in a world that evolved in total disconnection from the familiarity of humanity. This frees you to watch and imagine how these beings could have evolved on (or off) their planet.

The voice cast seems to embrace this. The characters feel sincere and untethered to Hollywood-style clichés, tones or inflections – perhaps untethered even to the script, as offhand remarks, mutters, and inquiring hums or implicating grunts often overlap the prominent speaker and each other. It lends itself to apparent realness in a way today's directors seldom seem courageous enough to allow.

Weaknesses, aside from the heavy-handed computer-generated visuals, include the cinematography, and, unfortunately, the music. The music is "movie-quality," which isn't saying much today. In terms of music theory (which is perceptible intellectually by musicians and intuitively by laypeople), it's the opposite of bold, and pales in comparison to the score of the 1982 film. It has themes, but no themes, if you will. Watching the 1982 trailer is a better musical experience than watching the new series in its entirety.

Today's directors, I recently thought, seem to think they're in Speed, terrified the production will explode if the camera fails to move at less than 55 miles per hour. Sadly, the boldness of Age Of Resistance is sullied by this fear as well. If its sets and characters were a museum exhibit, children and adults would stare at single scenes for minutes at a time and not want to leave, whereas I found myself lucky to regard its stunning vistas, dwellings, and coves for even two seconds. And again (honestly, why?), for simple exchanges between hero or villain conspirators, the camera can't resist circling as though we're watching them from a temperamental merry-go-round. In fact, the show's overall pace seemed equally rushed, even hampering absorbability of the pilot's crucial exposition. Among the ten episodes, there are two scenes I know I'll remember: one where two frightened main characters work through a language barrier toward a hesitant alliance, and one where another two primaries expose the world's origin story by performing an elaborate puppet show for two others. (So much lends life to these characters, but revealing their artistic whims this way was a bright star on that tree.) Of course it cut when appropriate, but refreshingly, these were scenes in which the camera was freed from the almost neurotic-feeling perfectionism that so often seized it. Here, it was not liberally dollied, shaken, thrown around, flipped, tilted, blended, cement-mixed, or fired into a wormhole. Would that this scene had inspired all the others.

For those weaknesses, there was so much achieved. I don't see myself watching the series again, but I may return to the original film for its inspired music, its room to breathe, and the spectacle it was designed to offer a theatrical audience. While Age Of Resistance set itself up for a second season, and I might watch that, the show wasn't renewed.

It was those unusual and courageous traits of Age Of Resistance – the traits that made The Dark Crystal shine – that made me want to write about it. I'd like to see TV and movies overcome their nervous, less courageous tendencies and refocus on achieving their greatness by embracing choices inspired not by what already exists, but by the creator's imagination and gut.