Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance is ridiculously ambitious, for (overwhelmingly) better and (occasionally) worse. It’s a rare and beautiful beast that’s definitively an epic TV series, as well as feeling very easy to surrender to and bury oneself between luxuriously rich storytelling and gloriously beautiful pops of color. That ease, though, demands some patience — and I apologize for pulling this card — and doesn’t arrive until you’re a few initial episodes in. That’s a terrible way to start this review, right? No one wants to be told that a TV series “gets better” if you just stick it out, but that’s not what I”m getting at. This series is remarkable from the beginning, yet it just happens to be so layered that one really needs some warm-up time, or viewers might feel overwhelmed. These days, we’re so used to padded, overly long seasons of streaming TV that waste time meandering through useless, redundant happenings. That’s not the case with this series. It’s well-paced and doesn’t invest time with extra garbage, but viewers have to stay “present” to absorb all of the set-up. There’s a lot of world building that needs to be established, but it all sets up an enormous payoff.
As a prequel to Jim Henson’s cult-beloved The Dark Crystal (1982), the series is so intricately constructed that some viewers will call it complicated. That’s a fair criticism but easily overcome, and it’s nuts that this TV show exists. Just wild and crazy and gutsy and admirable and yeah. Nuts.
Look, Netflix took a huge risk with this series. They spent an enormous amount of money on realistically rendered puppets (and the best puppeteers) that are voiced by expensive names. What results is exquisite, but oh boy, be prepared to watch the first episode more than once to properly process it all. It’s worth the investment of taking that extra hour, and notably, Age of Resistance operates upon the assumption that viewers haven’t watched the Henson movie. So that’s a time saver. Watch the movie at your leisure, or not, but rest assured that the mythos and spirit of Henson’s creation remain intact, and this series should impress regardless of familiarity with subject matter. The sheer attention to detail, with countless technical tidbits that went into rendering the world of Thra, is simply astonishing to behold. Netflix (guided by Jim Henson’s daughter, Lisa) obviously took the time to get things right.
Since there’s a lot to “get right” in a project like this, there are an equal number of things that could go wrong. The technology, for one thing. These characters are all puppets, for crying out loud. I never thought we’d see Netflix pour hundreds of millions of dollars into puppets in 2019. That’s what happened, though, and they’re fascinating to witness from a physical standpoint before we even consider the voice talent involved. Naming names does feel necessary: Taron Egerton, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Anna Taylor-Joy voice three Gelflings whose stories intersect and spark rebellion against corrupt overlords; the Skeksis, who are led by Jason Isaacs as a cruel Emperor and Mark Hamill as the Scientist. The latter species is an alien one, with the Gelflings fleshing out seven species who are native to Thra. Too many other names could be mentioned here, but a few of these roles are voiced by the likes of Lena Headey, Andy Samberg, Alicia Vikander, Gugu-Mbatha Raw, Awkwafina, Simon Pegg, Natalie Dormer, Sigourney Weaver, and Donna Kimball.
Power struggles and turmoil abound, all painstakingly paced through ten episodes. To begin, Thra sits on the brink of war, some time after the Skeksis coaxed power away from Thra’s matriarchal ruler and took possession of the Crystal of Truth. Things are not going well for them when this story picks up. They’re worried about maintaining their reign because a hellish phenomenon called “The Darkening” is spreading. All life begins to decay or go crazy, and the Skeksis — who are as frightening, hideous, and violent as within the movie — go to disturbing lengths to keep the Gelflings down and preserve their power. Moments of horror punctuate the beauty of this TV show, which (and again, I mean this in the best way) is delightfully insane. This show exists in a time when our TV landscape is cluttered to the point of excess, but it’s so wildly victorious while taking a swing that one has to admire the spectacle.
Ultimately, I could go on for days describing Thra’s structure, but it’s enough to tell you this: The Dark Crystal will please both Henson fans and those who are looking to bridge the fantasy-epic gap between Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings series from Amazon. This series is a sprawling one that unfolds at a natural clip once the expository foundation’s in place. To dig into more of the plot here would serve an injustice in this review. I definitely don’t want to spoil the process of discovering treasures. It would actually be adequate for me to advise anyone who thinks this might be their jam to fire up a few episodes, and see where things go. Don’t be afraid to turn on the subtitles, just so you can catch character names and origins. Because this series, well, it’s a lot as far as substance and absorbing that substance goes.
Yet remember how complex and organic Thrones once felt, in terms of character development and storytelling breadth? The same vibe springs from The Dark Crystal fountain. This series won’t replace Thrones, of course, but it’s very Thrones-y, with puppets, and it’s a fine placeholder while we wait patiently for HBO’s followup.
Netflix’s ‘The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance’ streams on August 30.