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The Things You Learn Watching 10 Straight Hours of ‘The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance’

The Netflix series—a prequel to Jim Henson’s iconic film—is a beautifully rendered testament to its source material, but it is also a surprising well of insight (especially when consumed in one feverish sitting)

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Jim Henson’s puppet-fantasy epic The Dark Crystal was never a film that quite entombed itself into my own personal canon. The mythology of Thra didn’t grab me by my nostalgia jugular. I always considered it sort of a dour proto-Labyrinth, sans David Bowie and his bulge. Obviously the finished product was audacious, a technical achievement that inspired and brought joy to millions—I just wasn’t among the millions. Because I came to it a bit later than others, the film felt to me like reading the lyrics of a song you loved without the music. Unless it’s a Silver Jews song, the words alone don’t quite do the complete package justice. Something was missing. There was a deep Sesame Street–like earnestness pervading The Dark Crystal, and I found the Gelfling hero, Jen, unequivocally lame. He was Link from Legend of Zelda, if Link emanated querulous Elijah Wood energy. The long-awaited expansion of this universe in the form of a prequel series on Netflix was something that could possibly allow me to hear the original film’s melody for the first time.

My mission: to give The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance a fair shake and to watch it all at once. I consumed all 10 episodes in one sitting/lying down, punctuated only by refilling my glass with bottom-shelf vodka and mid-shelf orange juice. My youngest cat, Ghostface, somewhat feral but cute as hell, was my viewing companion. Together we settled in for the long haul and watched various puppets go on various puppet adventures and learn various puppet life lessons. And yes, we also learned much about life and love and crystal shards and puppets: We learned that “tug noot causes explosive belching” and that Alicia Vikander’s voice is good (which, I guess, I already knew).

First and foremost, to any intrepid or insomniac bingers: Do you need to watch the original film to enjoy this? No! In fact, it’s probably less of an immediate bummer if you don’t already know that this #Resistance ends in defeat and ethnic cleansing. Your choice though! For those who already love the film, the series is a perfect accompaniment, the rare reboot/prequel/reimagining that seems to mostly hit all the right notes, as it displays an obvious reverence and fidelity for the source material while pushing forward in a much more complex, dare I say it, prestige-puppet fashion.

If I could, I would gladly tell the Ghost of Jim Henson that The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance slaps. And if he didn’t understand my youthful slang, I’d tell him it was quite good indeed. It is, simply put, the high-fantasy puppet show about climate change and genocide we never knew we needed. Speaking of these real-world applications, The Dark Crystal came out in the 1980s, which was just about the last moment in time we could have properly turned back the tide of man-made climate change. Now, decades later, we get the prequel and get to put sweet Gelfling faces to the future victims of the mass extinction event. This is very relatable, as we are also all going to die because we didn’t respect nature enough.

Other than the rigid feudal social structure that keeps the have-nots in line, the world of Thra seems pretty sweet! The puppet masters have expertly honored Jim Henson’s vision and gamely expanded the universe to add a colorful lushness to the locales. It feels like a real inhabited place (for puppet people), packed with bracing snow-capped mountain vistas, enchanted woodlands, an underground world of phosphorescent wonder; all that lovely fantasy world shit. Sadly for the Gelflings, Podlings, and other denizens of Thra—including sad long-legged horses, put-upon roly-polies (often conscripted as wheels), and giant Spitters (spiders)—the world has begun to die, courtesy of the Darkening, which is a sort of emotionally charged magically destructive greenhouse gas. The titular crystal mainly hangs out in the background as the Skeksis mess around with different ways to ruin stuff.

Which, of course: the Skeksis! The Skeksis are raptor-vulture-looking shitheads, basically a group of patently evil monsters that have been gaslighting the citizens of Thra for generations. All they do is stomp around and yell at each other and then laugh about it. They all have disgusting bodies, some shriveled and scrawny (though they wisely wear voluminous robes to cover this, because that helps!), some grotesquely fat and leaking puss, most a combination of simpering, snarling, drooling, belching, farting, whining, grumbling, retching. You hate to see it.

As aliens to Thra, the Skeksis don’t really have any attachment to the planet, and pull out all the stops to live forever, eventually stumbling upon a scheme to drain the “essence” (souls?) of Gelflings to prolong their slimy lives (RIP, Gelfling Alicia Vikander), because the idea of dying is really scary. Gelfling essence creates an opioid crisis amongst the Skeksis. They go crazy for the stuff.

Some Skeksis get more screentime than others: The Chamberlain (Simon Pegg), like in the film, gets the most of all. He is a simpering Jar-Jar Binks infused with a Machiavellian realpolitik grasp of power; the Scientist (Mark Hammil) is a cut-rate Frankenstein monster who at one point smashes an adorable creature to death and cackles in glee as its blood splatters all over his beak; Awkwafina, Harvey Fierstein, Keegan-Michael Key, Benedict Wong, Jason Issacs, and the dad from The Witch also stumble around and take turns being crass and bitchy to their fellow lizard puppets. But mostly it is the Chamberlain who gets to shine. He’s the smart Skeksis, the moderate génocidaire. He isn’t emotionally invested in hatred of lesser beings like some of his buddies; he merely sees Skeksis supremacy as something obvious. Skeksis are superior to Gelflings, and Gelflings are superior to Podlings, and Podlings are superior to bugs; apartheid is the natural order of things but it’s nothing personal. (A raptor-vulture puppet riffing on race science is pretty dark stuff to witness from your couch at 4 a.m.)

The Gelflings we follow on three heroic quests that eventually become one are Deet, Brea, and Rian. They each hail from different clans (practically castes) of Gelfling, though they all share the same physical attributes, which is to say: crazy long eyelashes and vacant stares. Deet (Nathalie Emmanuel), the most lovable of the three, is of the Grottan Clan, the sort of Global South Gelflings who live underground and are friendly to animals, even gross bugs. Deet also has two dads, which is pretty neat. She strikes up a friendship with a tree who tells her what to do and she immediately decides to listen. Brea is a princess of the Vapra Clan, sort of the Aryan Gelflings, or more charitably the Vichy France Gelflings, or most charitably, the Neolib Gelflings. Because one of the show’s themes is collaboration, complacency, and putting up with an established order for short term expedience, Brea is inquisitive and clever and seems to be the only one who immediately realizes their cruel lizard overlords are not exactly on the level. Finally, there’s Rian, a young warrior of the Stonewood Clan who fails to impress his father and just watches as the Skeksis murder his girlfriend, Alicia Vikander. The respective quests of Deet, Brea, and Rian intertwine and dance around one another until they fully converge. When our three petite heroes come together, they form the tip of the titular resistance’s spear, inspiring the more recalcitrant/brainwashed Gelflings to get it together and take to the streets against the manifest tyranny of the Skeksis. Before the little swords come out in earnest, the trio forcibly uncover secrets that will be all too familiar to old-school Dark Crystal heads, notably the big reveal of the symbiotic relationship between the Skeksis and the rarely glimpsed (in the show at least) urRu creatures. The Gelflings’ journeys are, in effect, ones of forcibly reprogramming the various citizens of their world, attempting to course-correct millenia of lies and reptilian obfuscation—but it’s all done very righteously!

In the pre-dawn darkness, as the episodes relentlessly auto-played, I began to jot down life lessons The Age of Resistance taught me:

  • If there are ever three sisters, one is always bound to be evil (Brea’s oldest sister, Seladon, gets a slow burn of an arc usually reserved for main players).
  • Reading too much always leads to disaster.
  • We should treat animals better.
  • Watching monsters drink your girlfriend’s essence will emotionally scar you for at least seven hours before you meet someone new.
  • At some point in life you will almost certainly be privy to an impromptu “I am Spartacus” moment.
  • Friendship is good.
  • Giant spiders only need proper incentive to not eat you.
  • Gelflings deny climate change almost as often as humans do.
  • Sometimes puppets’ mouths don’t match their voices and that’s OK.
  • Alicia Vikander should never die in the first episode of anything.

But what I kept thinking about, through 10 straight hours of puppet adventures, was the unspoken heaviness that festoons itself to all prequels. We already know what’s going to happen. By the events of the original film, there are only two Gelflings left in the entire world! Two! The Skeksis succeed in engineering their Gelfling genocide. So yeah, it’s kind of a bummer that it is a foregone conclusion that curious Brea, brave Rian, pure Deet, wise Kylan, fierce Naia, and Gurjin (just Gurjin) are all doomed. Perhaps this is supposed to remind me that trying hard doesn’t matter and we can’t stop what’s coming. Or perhaps that nothing is written—as Mother Aughra, a one-eyed magical crone with ram horns, herself hints—and that the events of the film are but one possibility of the avalanche of time that begins with these particular Gelflings having the temerity to fight back.

Of all his projects, Jim Henson was proudest of The Dark Crystal. The ambition of it, how difficult it was to bring to life. “Kermit the Frog is a worthless piece of shit compared to any random Gelfling and I would personally kill Fozzie Bear’s entire family to someday make a prequel series of the Dark Crystal” is almost certainly an apocryphal quote, but still, Age of Resistance honors Henson and his proudest achievement. The creators and producers unfurled it with a palpable and wholesome joy, a joy that snuffed out my baser instincts, which were to make more jokes at its expense. By the end, I was unable to, overcome with emotion, my eyes wet with genuine tears. Possibly because I was drunk and sleepy, but possibly only slightly because of that.

Alex Siquig lives in Baltimore, drinks MD 20/20, and writes about things like Game of Thrones, the Willennium, and the life of Doug Funnie.