The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Is Powered by Beautiful Unreality

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a 10-hour-long ode to craft. Narratively, there’s not a lot going on within those 10 hours. In terms of basic storytelling, Age of Resistance suffers from what has come to be known as “the Netflix Bloat,” the sense that a story has been padded out and extended in order to fit a predetermined runtime. Characters are constantly captured and escaping and wandering through the world rather than reaching any particular destination.

Age of Resistance is very clearly a collection of familiar fantasy clichés, informed by contemporary fantasy blockbusters. The series opens with an extended expository monologue from Sigourney Weaver, which recalls Cate Blanchett’s introduction to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring almost 20 years ago. The voice cast is populated with veterans of Game of Thrones, including Nathalie Emmanuel, Lena Headey, and Natalie Dormer.

It is possible to derive some vague allegory or social commentary from Age of Resistance, with its portrayal of things like climate change or economic exploitation or even fantastical racism. However, there is little about the writing that distinguishes the show. Its characterization feels very broad, and its attempts at humor are often forced.

The most impressive thing about Age of Resistance is how little any of that narrative shallowness actually matters. Age of Resistance is a visual marvel, an astoundingly beautiful piece of work. All the plot contrivances and delaying tactics are simply an excuse to spend more time immersed in the world of the show.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance beauty of unreality puppets

The series is the product of a staggering amount of work; the production team built 89 sets and sometimes had up to 100 puppeteers working with three puppeteers to a puppet. The primary cast is expansive. There are at least 36 recurring characters, each with their own distinct personality and appearance. Everything within Age of Resistance has been carefully and lovingly designed.

Modern special effects are often about disguising the unreality of an image, pushing towards verisimilitude. This is perhaps most notable with the live-action adaptations of classic Disney animation like The Lion King. Computer-generated effects are often intended to trick the audience, convincing them that what they are seeing is realistic. Modern technology has reached a point where these sorts of image manipulations can blur the boundaries of reality.

Age of Resistance’s embrace of an older special effects aesthetic is refreshing. The production team uses computer-generated imagery where necessary, but they mostly rely on the magic of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The creative team crafts puppets and uses animatronics to bring the world of the series to life, including the Muppet-esque Podlings, human-sized Skeksis, and elfin Gelflings.

The puppets in Age of Resistance are never intended to be particularly convincing or realistic, like a documentary smuggled from the planet Thra. The audience is never expected to believe that Gelflings or Skeksis could actually exist. After all, some of the horror and violence within the show would be too much to bear if the creatures were rendered especially life-like.

Instead, the audience is asked to marvel at the technique and skill on display. This has always been the magic of Jim Henson, the blending of obvious unreality with sheer craft. Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle in The Muppet Movie is frequently cited as one of the most impressive technical accomplishments in the history of cinema. As Roger Ebert began his review, “Jolson sang, Barrymore spoke, Garbo laughed, and now Kermit the Frog rides a bicycle.” In his cinema history book Rosebud Sleds and Horses’ Heads, Daily Telegraph culture critic Scott Jordan Harris contended, “Like all the most impressive magic tricks, this illusion occurs in plain sight.”

Kermit’s bike ride wasn’t so impressive because the audience believed that Kermit was a real frog who had been trained to operate a pedal-driven, single-track vehicle. The viewer knows that Kermit is a puppet who is being mechanically operated. However, watching Kermit ride a bicycle invites the audience to appreciate how much care and attention went into making the movie. The audience wonders how such a feat was accomplished, which allows them to appreciate the construction.

Age of Resistance works largely on those terms. The puppets are incredibly expressive and dexterous. The production design is staggering, even when it comes to something as simple as the establishing shots of clouds breaking over the mountains of this distant world. Simple sequences of two characters talking become strangely compelling, as the camera quietly invites the audience to marvel at the detail of this imaginary realm.

Lovingly rendered creatures often move through the background of shots, barely in focus and occasionally completely obscured. Beautifully painted eyes shift and focus with intensity, blinking and leering in impressive detail. As the characters journey through forests, leaves sway gently in a manufactured wind on the closed set. Tears stain the cheeks of these puppets, even though the audience knows that their eyeballs do not need moistening.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance beauty of unreality puppets

There is a beautiful paradox at the heart of Age of Resistance. The audience knows that a lot of this world actually physically exists as actual puppets being filmed on sets. Age of Resistance probably employs a lot less computer-generated imagery than other science fiction and fantasy shows like The Orville or Star Trek: Discovery. However, Age of Resistance also spends a lot less time trying to convince the audience that any of this is real.

The creators of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance ask the audience to appreciate the show as a work of art, to embrace the unreality of it all, to recognize these puppets and these sets as man-made constructions. They never try to fool the audience with gestures towards verisimilitude or strive to make Thra resemble the world that the viewer knows. That just makes it all the more magical.

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a self-professed nerd living on the East Coast of Ireland. He runs his a blog (the m0vie blog), co-hosts two weekly film podcasts (The 250, Scannain) and has written books on The X-Files and the films of Christopher Nolan. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.

    Insurgency Documentary – The Cancelled Exiles Project

    Previous article

    GreedFall – Review in 3 Minutes

    Next article

    21 Comments

    1. My favorite part from a “technical wizardry” perspective was the puppets doing their own puppet show.

      1. My own favourite little detail was how you could see the creatures lurking in the background of jungle shots, just out of focus. If you were watching the focus of the scene and what in theory you *should* be watching – two characters talking – you’d miss these elements completely. It’s absolutely incredible.

    2. I really could not bring myself to watch this production. The writing and expository opening hits like a thud, and it just baffled me how such length could be gone to without having stronger source material. Video games are much the same. The literary component is discounted. It has the technique of Jim Henson’s production, but none of the magic. And the writing and scenario could not be more unappetizing. I was baffled to look up the show after trying to watch it to find reviews lauding it online. I felt like people must be grading it on a curve that stretches any credulity, including critics. It’s awful for the same reason video games are awful. It’s a hollow shell without any artistic merit. Art is not the mere tracing of steps to bring a lavishly crafted object into being. Art must have a vital spirit and something admirable that transcends the everyday humdrum. Not everything can be brilliant, but if it’s not brilliant, for god sake, don’t turn it into a massive production, unless your company is so cynical it’s willing to put out junk media. In this case it’s unforgivable as a footnote on Jim Henson’s remarkable legacy.

      Disclaimer: I might be overacting here. Like I say, I gave up after 10 or 15mins. Maybe it picks up steam, but it’s unforgivable to not get the cart rolling out of the gate.

      1. …you never saw the movie, I take it?

          1. And that means what?

            1. It’s the secret language of older people:

              Everyone born in the 20th century has seen Dark Crystal on multiple occasions. I can recall two situations when adult groups for whatever reason decided to have a movie night, and everyone agreed on Dark Crystal. I don’t know why, but it obviously has purchase. It’s a perennial favorite of our generation, possibly more than any other movie, so it’s patently silly to think that anyone has not seen Dark Crystal. Only a young person would have that thought. Young people have the same right as everyone else to join in discussion. But it’s still funny, since they’ve only been on the planet for a brief time. That doesn’t stop them from acting like a boss. It’s a simple pleasure you only get to enjoy (a little) later in life.

              P.S. As fantasy goes, no films come remotely close to Jim Henson’s fantasy masterpieces. I’m more of a Labyrinth guy. It’s amazing, and you get David Bowie in one of his best onscreen performances as cherry on top.

            2. You realize this is The Escapist, right? A website with a mostly Gen X and Millennial audience? 37 isn’t even close to “older” around here.

            3. Oh? Then why are you posting here like a punk kid?

            4. Wait, “punk kid”? I don’t think I’ve heard that said unironically this century. The punks all being over 50 might have something to do with it.

            5. I guess a whippersnapper like you wouldn’t know what a punk is.

              https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punk_subcultu

            6. Yes, I never heard of that.

      2. “It’s awful for the same reason video games are awful.”

        Talk about broad, dismissive generalizations of an entire medium… That’s a real whopper.

        1. Though to be fair, it is pretty difficult to find many examples of video game stories that aren’t patently silly, cliched or otherwise pretty lacklustre – even when their main *thing* is to be a story-based affair.
          (Although personally I don’t mind that, given that games are meant to be, you know, games first and foremost.)

        2. It’s also anchored, I think, in the assumption that story – or even just narrative – is the sum total of what an experience can be. (I’m sorry, this probably makes me sound unbearably pretentious, but I am not just talking about “art” in inverted commas.)

          I don’t watch “Airplane!” for the story, for example, I watch it for the jokes around the story. “John Wick” takes a fairly standard story, and elevates it by wedding it to frankly incredible stunt work, choreography, awareness and style. I don’t think that “Twin Peaks” is an amazing piece of television because of the story it tells, but because of how it tells its story. I love “Koyaanisqatsi”, even if a lot of the meaning has to be imposed on those sequences of beautiful images by me. I don’t think that watching “Dark Crystal” for the artistry and craft is unreasonable.

          I think video games are great because of the experience of playing them, not necessarily because of the stories they tell.

          1. Exactly. Each within its own.
            Swan Lake or The Nutcracker are… not very good narratives with somewhat silly premises, but no one argues that ballet is not art just because the stories are simplistic.

          2. A) Dark Crystal exists. It’s not unreasonable to compare this production to the beloved movie it’s based on, B) Artistry has more to do with authorial intent and execution than any discipline in particular.

            Fantasy is a traditional genre (perhaps the oldest) that outside of children’s cartoons always either plays to that tradition or plays against it to dramatic effect.

        3. Video games (not the medium itself but the products of the companies working in it) have good points and bad points. I’ve yet to see a video game with a literary edge. To do that budgets would have to be reshuffled dramatically. It’s one thing for a video game to not budget for writing and scenario and dramatic roles, but it’s a completely other matter for a television show, where those things are paramount.

          Dark Crystal is similar to video games in that it’s an effects extravaganza. The company doesn’t think viewers care if the show has literary chops or not. (Or worse, they think Dark Crystal doesn’t.) That they’re just there for the effects show. That’s very similar to video games. And why ultimately video games don’t share the agreed on artistic integrity of earlier media.

          Too often, nowadays, books and movies are made like video games. I always say: It looks like a video game; It’s written like a video game. That is second-rate, hollowed out, a lack of effort in multiple dimensions. Many do discount the entire medium. That is why. (But it’s not like video games are the worst. I think that distinction actually goes to network television in the U.S. The scary thing is, that’s likely calculated: I think we want to believe people are how we see ourselves on television, instead of the reality, which is probably closer to an episode of the X-Files.)

          Disclaimer: Before you vehemently reject this jaundiced take, know that this is Zero Punctuation’s entire shtick.

    3. This was actually pretty good. I’m in my 40s and found this one of the best watches of the year.

      1. Yep, it’s stunningly beautiful. I don’t see it making my favourite watches of the year – I’ve watched a lot this year – it’s something that I think will stay with me.

    Leave a reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *