The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance review – “Game of Thrones on strings”

Nearly 40 years after the original film, how does this puppet prequel stand up?

Simon Pegg's Chamberlain in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the ideal time for a movie sequel isn’t a couple of years later, or even on the 10th anniversary, or the 25th.

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No, it’s obvious that the ideal time for a follow-up to an iconic movie is exactly 37 years after it came out, at a point where all your original child audience are middle-aged, your unique selling point has largely vanished from film and TV and you might assume that everyone had moved on.

That’s when you strike – and then surprise everyone by making something better than they could have imagined.

Or at least that’s the lesson to take from Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a prequel to the original 1982 Dark Crystal movie that combines the film’s innovative puppetry with advances in filmmaking and the Video-On-Demand streaming model (which was decades away from even being considered when The Dark Crystal came out).

Put simply, Age of Resistance is more than a worthy follow-up to Jim Henson’s original cult classic, building on the lore of the fantasy world of Thra and its strange inhabitants (the cruel Skeksis, the elf-like Gelflings, and the cute little Podlings) to create a sprawling fantasy epic filled with brutal storytelling, incredible design and stunning worldbuilding.

It’s Game of Thrones on strings, basically – and not just because quite a few Thrones alumni (Nathalie Emmanuel, Natalie Dormer, Hannah John-Kamen) voice some of the cast.

We catch up with the story many years (though it’s not clear exactly how long) before the events of the original Dark Crystal movie, at a point where the Gelflings still have a powerful civilisation and Thra itself is not the dark place we once knew.

The vulture-like Skeksis, yet to wipe out the Gelflings, instead employ them as guards and vassals throughout the kingdom – until one lowly warrior called Rian (Taron Egerton) sees them commit a terrible atrocity, forcing him to spark a rebellion against Skeksis rule throughout Thra.

Hup, Deet and Rian in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
Hup, Deet and Rian in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)

Meanwhile, two other Gelflings from different clans (Nathalie Emmanuel’s underground animal-lover Deet and Anya Taylor-Joy’s bookworm princess Brea) also find themselves questioning the logic of Skeksis rule after separate supernatural events lead them out on quests of their own.

To say much more risks spoiling the story – an odd thing to say when we know exactly what will happen to the Gelflings thanks to the original film, or so you might think – but suffice it to say it’s an extremely imaginative run of 10 episodes, which extends the snapshot of Thra we had back in 1982 hugely.

While all the fan-favourite elements are there – the weaselly Skeksis Chamberlain (his vocal tics recreated perfectly by Simon Pegg), the furball Fizzgig creatures, some iconic sets and locations – there’s also so much more to enjoy this time around.

Obviously, one of the biggest changes comes from the expanded Gelfling civilisation. Only hinted at before, it now comes as a Westeros-like collection of rival clans, twisted allegiances, stifling traditions and even Gelfling racism.

The Skeksis also have their ranks expanded, most notably by Jason Isaacs’ booming, intimidating Emperor (a character who disappears early in the film) but also in other Skeksis both within and outside the castle, challenging our preconceptions of exactly who and what the obvious villains of the piece are. Watch out for Andy Samberg’s Heretic in particular…

A group of Skeksis in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)
A group of Skeksis in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (Netflix)

Still, despite the wide-roaming story and compelling vocal performances (Anya Taylor-Joy is a particular stand-out among the leads), it’s the production of this 10-part series that will really have people talking.

37 years on from The Dark Crystal, most filmmakers have moved on from puppetry in favour of CGI, but this series shows just what you can achieve with physical props and characters. According to the crew, while CGI was used to enhance certain shots and paint out puppeteers (the latter a facility not available in the 1980s) the lush, vibrant Thra you see on screen is still 90-95% pure puppetry, and the effect is striking.

In every scene you watch, every character, every background frond, every strange animal is shifting, moving, living, giving Thra an incredible sense of uneven, wonky depth and life that seems all the more unique in an age of shiny, pitch-perfect CGI blockbusters.

Of course, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance isn’t perfect. A few of the Gelfling characters are a bit one-note and (thanks to their fidelity to the original puppets) inexpressive, and given that this is a series intended primarily for kids you shouldn’t expect an incredible subtlety or depth of humanity in the performances.

Meanwhile, parents might shy away from some of the series’ darker moments (including some slightly censored but still-grisly deaths and tortures) when it comes to watching with younger children – though arguably, having your nightmares populated by Skeksis is a rite of passage for any child.

But overall, the Henson Company and Netflix have done here what the Star Wars prequels couldn’t – make a story set before the villains won that expands and increases the lore without tarnishing it. All these years on, for fans it’ll be a dreamfast come true.

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Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance streams on Netflix UK from the 30th August