The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is quickly becoming the latest streaming blockbuster on Netflix. Since its release, the Henson Company helmed dark fantasy has garnered almost universal acclaim by both new fans, and old admirers of the 1982 film that spawned it. However, I’d go a step further and say that the show not only captured the essence of the original film but also overcame some of the film’s biggest flaws.
The 1982 film The Dark Crystal was Muppet creator Jim Henson’s effort to move into some more heavy material, and show that puppetry could be used for something other than comedy. It told the story of a Gelfling named Jen and his efforts to save his dying world from the tyrannical rule of a race known as the Skeksis.
The Dark Crystal was a far cry from the various style shows that Henson had come to be known for. It was dark, moody, and at times quite frightening. The world of Thra was brought to vivid life with the film’s creative design work and some of the most stunning puppetry ever captured on celluloid. These traits helped The Dark Crystal to become one of the most memorable cult films of the decade. But why was The Dark Crystal viewed as a cult film as opposed to a full-fledged classic? In spite of the film’s many virtues, certain elements do hold it back from true greatness.
The film certainly didn’t suffer due to lack of imagination or for Henson and company’s astonishing puppetry. Rather, all of The Dark Crystal’s problems began with the script. In spite of its imaginative world, the movie told a pretty by the numbers story of a character needing to save the world due to an apparent prophecy. Things like who told this prophecy and why it was essential for this hero to fulfill it are left unanswered, leaving a plot that ultimately feels incomplete.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a prequel series detailing the events fifty years prior to the film. Age of Resistance risked repeating these problems but instead managed to overcome them in spectacular fashion. Comparing the issues of the original vs. how the show overcame them is not only a fascinating exercise but could also provide some great lessons on what makes a well-written fantasy.
All of the problems in the original The Dark Crystal begin with one thing. Exposition. From the very first shot we’re treated to an info dump, and then they continue until even after the finale of the story. While information is important in a genre like fantasy, the original film deals it out so much that things like character development and the world itself are left neglected. Characters spend too much time explaining the world to endear themselves to the audience, and the world itself is explained so thoroughly that we never have the opportunity to really explore some of its most fascinating aspects.
Age of Resistance has its share of exposition but delivers it in more unique and memorable ways than the original film. Often times exposition scenes are among the show’s most memorable moments. The Skeksi character of the Heretic and his Mystic counterpart of the Wanderer are good examples of this. Their primary role in the story is expository, but rather than have them simply explain things verbally as the original film did, the show instead allows the pair to explain things using puppets.
Already this is more visual and memorable than the original film, but Age of Resistance goes a step further. The scene also makes good use of the constant bickering of the Heretic and the Wanderer. Use of both puppets and personality makes what could have been a dull info dump into a memorable and lively comedic set piece.
When you pack a story with too much exposition, other story elements like character development suffer as a result. In the original, Jen is more or less a blank slate. His only significant character trait isn’t his personality or what he learns on his journey, but rather simply to fulfill the prophecy the other characters have set for him.
Jen’s first and only scene with his master is expository, so we never get a feeling for the bond the two share or how his death has impacted Jen. Similarly, the Gelfling Kira spends so much time explaining the world to Jen, that we rarely see the two bond as characters. The best characters are the ones who change, and apart from completing the prophecy set before him, Jen is exactly the same at the end of the story as he is in the beginning.
The show makes better use of character, allowing them to grow and change, and even granting them some agency over the plot. While Jen had little agency in the original, a character like Brea causes her own story to happen. It’s Brea’s inquisitive nature that allows her to find the message left by the Heretic and the Wanderer, thereby setting in motion the events of her story arc.
Other characters transform so drastically that they’re almost unrecognizable from one episode to the next. Seladon is a good example of this. Initially simply a princess with big dreams, Seladon becomes an almost fanatical devotee of the ruthless Skeksis, even offering up her own people to be sacrificed in order to preserve the status quo. Eventually, she grows wise to the crimes of the Skeksis and joins the very rebellion she sought to destroy. Given how past cruelty, this makes Seladon’s redemption that much more unexpected, and rewarding.
USING THE WORLD
One of the reasons the original Dark Crystal remains celebrated is because of its unique world, and why shouldn’t it be? The world of Thra is a vibrant place, overflowing with colorful creatures and unforgettable places. But given how the script is written, we’re only allowed to see these things at a distance.
In both the original film and the show, the Skeksis and the Mystics were once joined as single entities known as the UrSkeks. The film shows this in how they share injuries. When a Skeksi is injured, their mystic counterpart shares the injury. When one dies, so does the other. These are interesting ideas, but while we see them in brief scenes that are at best negligible in their effects on the characters.
This same bit of world-building is included in Age of Resistance but is used in a more interesting way. It’s best explored in the characters of the Skeksi known as the Hunter, and his Mystic counterpart of the Archer. The Archer seeks to protect the heroes and that the Hunter is trying to destroy. These opposing goals cause the two to clash several times throughout the show, and that the Archer can’t kill the Hunter without also killing himself only raises the stakes.
This comes to a head when the Hunter captures one of the show’s leading characters during the final battle. Knowing that they share each other’s injuries, the Archer leaps to his death, thereby killing the Hunter and delivering one more victory for the heroes. Moments like this show how the rules of a world can be exploited for dramatic tension, which makes the character’s actions that much more meaningful.
WELCOME TO THRA
One might think I hate Henson’s original film based on this analysis. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Henson touched on something truly special in his 1982, and that left me wanting more.
I’d equate the original film to a postcard. It shows you a striking image of some far off place, and while it may evoke a certain mood, it’s a far cry from actually being there. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is not a postcard of such a place as Thra. It’s the ticket that gets you there.
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