The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Is the Strangest of Things: A Riveting Long-Form Puppet Show

Image: Kevin Baker

Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance asks a lot of its viewers: It wants them to take puppets seriously enough to empathize with them over the course of 10 hour(-ish)-long episodes. This ask is not without precedent. Previously, some of these characters (and other characters very much like these characters) were handcrafted to engage audiences in the movie to which this series serves as a prequel: 1982's The Dark Crystal, co-directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. But even if you weren’t much invested in what made protagonists Jen and Kira tick, even if you considered their quest to replace a broken shard from a giant crystal that served as the life force of their planet Thra to be a mere formality, that movie engaged in a slow-release world-building in which at least once every 10 minutes, a new, completely bizarre, and often charismatic creature was introduced. It was a blur of felt, foam, plastic, synthetic hair, and multi-species uncanny valleys, a truly immersive experience whose from-point-A-to-point-B storyline was almost besides the point. You could plop down and let the film hallucinate for you.

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Age of Resistance requires more engagement, and it’s also more rewarding. Viewers are likely to be reminded of Game of Thrones as well as our planet’s imminent ecological collapse. The social commentary via parable is a bit more blatant this time around, but sitting through a woke Dark Crystal is no chore. We’re back on Thra, whose very existence is in danger because of a growing environmental cataclysm referred to as “The Darkening.” The ruling class are the purple raptor-like Skesis, some of whom wear ruffs and speak in a theatrically formal tongue (“Lackadaisical Skeksis, they feast while we toil!”) but also smack their food in their beaks and fart. They’re the one percent, rich at least in the resource of time (they’re immortal). Below them on the social scale are the Gefling, elf-like creatures spread over Thra in a variety of clans that largely work for and revere the Skesis at the start of the story. (How they don’t realize giant, snarling purple birds might be sinister is never addressed by the show. I guess Gelfling are pure of heart and not hung up on looks.)

Those Gelfling clans are essentially races and the show wastes no opportunity to explore the corrosive effects of puppet-on-puppet bigotry.(There’s a scene that depicts an awokening of a character when she realizes the social strata she’s been taught as law is bullshit.) Below the Gefling are the Podlings, which look like a cross between Fraggle Rock’s Doozers and half-melted garden gnomes. They have the general affect of Amy Sedaris playing a drunken hobo stereotype, and are about as coherent. The Gelfling are the heroes, as they were in the movie, and their continued survival seems to depend on overthrowing the Skesis, whose tyranny is soon apparent. But first they need to get over their own shit in order to embrace a collective consciousness for the good of their world. Luckily, they have the power to view each other’s memories (a process call “dreamfasting”) and vividly empathize. Throughout, as various characters embark on various quests and campaigns for vengeance, the show nudges vaguely toward a pro-socialism stance. The events of Age of Resistance take place before the original film—by that time, Thra was almost entirely depleted of Gelfling (Jen thought he was the only one left until he met Kira), which means this story is something of a precursor to mass extinction. There is some suggestion of the Skesis engaging in ethnic cleansing.

The tragedy this show portends may gnaw at knowing viewers, but Age of Resistance rarely feels heavy, and its social consciousness doesn’t really cloy. In fact, the wokeness grounds what could have been a flighty fantasy in less capable hands. I’ve watched the first five episodes, and for the most part, I love this show. Love. Love in spite of its flaws. It’s not perfect. In terms of pacing, Age of Resistance has a tendency to amble along like someone with a hand shoved up their ass, and sometimes the Gelfling-heavy episodes are talky enough to make plastic and foam seem wooden.

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But those moments never last long. Like the movie, wonders are perpetually unfurling. There are Fizzgigs, high strung little yappers that evoke what would happen if a Yorkie mated with a dust bunny. There’s Aughra, a witch with one (removable) eye and ram horns. There are fairy-like creatures that flutter from the sky in downward spiral like samara; a fearsome, giant spider that hisses and and wields exo-weapons; large, armored bugs called armaligs that provide makeshift wheels for giant Skesis carriages. Danger lurks in a field of gobbles, plant-like growths that look like barnacles and threaten to consume anyone who falls into their patch. A Gelfling bleeds bubblegum-pink blood. The Jim Henson Company, which made this show, shows such ingenuity that it’s able to transform an animated pile of rocks into a cute, cuddly golden retriever-like companion. (Bonus: It communicates by using its finger as a record needle that it runs over a message that’s been engraved in its arm.) The entire production is electrified with visual and imaginative brilliance.

Age of Resistance is bursting with things to show you, and in that respect, it has the generosity that Henson himself might espoused if he lived to see the streaming age. I have no idea who this will appeal to or how much. If I hadn’t grown up watching the movie, I doubt I’d be as invested as I am. But I did go in a skeptic (“How could they possibly pull off a 10-hour puppet show???”) and I found myself frequently absorbed, especially during rather gracefully choreographed action sequences. I almost cried once? What the fuck! Age of Resistance never quite disappears into itself—it’s always a puppet show taking itself rather seriously (aside from intermittent moments of comic relief). But it’s better for being just that. You’re never allowed to forget that what you’re watching is utterly audacious and a little bit crazy. It’s been a banner year for television that pushes the envelope, TV that desperately wants to shock its audience with something new. A 10-hour, family-friendly puppet show based on an almost 40-year-old movie is at the vanguard. I never would have predicted it, but I’m thrilled that it happened.

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Rich Juzwiak

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.