07 September 2019

My Review of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

The promotional poster for Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. The three main characters, the gelflings Deet, Rian, and Brea, standing on a rocky mountain surrounded by purple glowing filaments of energy, looking at the crystal of the castle in the background, as the three suns of Thra are setting beyond it.

I don't know if you know this, but I am a huge fan of The Dark Crystal.

Ok, that's a paltry attempt at humour. If you read this blog at all, you know that I hold The Dark Crystal up as the greatest example of true fantasy that has ever been created. I have written before about the astounding amount of creativity that I feel went into this film. Tolkien did something wonderful when he created Middle Earth; he took elements of existing mythology, added many of his own ideas, and blended it all together into a cohesive (and incredibly well-detailed) world.

Almost all fantasy (excluding 'modern fantasy,' obviously) has followed on that pattern to some extent. Some fantasy worlds do away with non-human races (like Game of Thrones), others add or remove or alter some non-human races (Earthdawn added the Obsidimen and T'skrang, for example), but they're otherwise all more or less the same basic idea of pseudo-medieval settings with magic.

This is not the case with The Dark Crystal.

I know this isn't really a gaming-related topic, but it's gaming adjacent, and I hope you will indulge me this divergence into the realm of film and television.

A little background, for those not familiar:

Jim Henson decided, in the late 70s, that he wanted to do a film set in a completely new world. Part of the inspiration for this came from an illustration by Leonard B. Lubin in a publication of the works of Lewis Carroll of crocodiles wearing fancy robes and jewellery. He approached artist Brian Froud, whose work he had seen in the book Once Upon a Time, to work as the visual designer. Froud created not only the visual look of the creatures and much of the world of Thra (the name of the world in which The Dark Crystal is set), but worked closely with Henson to design the culture and architecture of the world as well.

Interesting side note: Froud met American dollmaker Wendy Midener, who was also working on The Dark Crystal, during production, and the two married shortly afterwards. Their son, Toby, was born during pre-production on Labyrinth, on which Froud and Henson collaborated after finishing The Dark Crystal, and starred as the child Toby in that same film.

Anyway. I won't go too deep into the background. I will admit that the story in The Dark Crystal is not the greatest story ever. It's not a bad story at all; it's a pretty standard fantasy quest story with the ubiquitous love story subplot. There's a lot of depth behind that story; if you're aware of the philosophical underpinnings that Henson used to come up with a number of the elements in the story and the setting, you realise that the story isn't that basic after all. But without that knowledge, I will grant that the story can seem pretty simplistic. Of course, the film is described as a family film. 'You know, for kids?'

That said, of course, it is pretty scary in some places. Jim Henson has stated that he felt it was wrong to keep children from ever being afraid; he intentionally made the film somewhat dark because he believed it was a good thing to do. Obviously, it leads to things like this video, in which a YouTuber describes The Dark Crystal as 'the movie that was too scary for Baby James' (note that that video is basically a giant spoiler; it details the entire plot of the film).

I feel the need to point out that there was much about the film that James obviously didn't understand; several of the things he describes as plot holes make sense in the context of the world of Thra, and within the context of the movie, but apparently James missed details like (for example) the importance of music in the world's philosophy.

But regardless. The point is, it's not the story that I love about the film. It's the world. The vast, rich, deeply detailed and beautiful world. James's video points out several scenes in which nothing happens, because we're just getting a glimpse of Thra. There are several scenes that last for a full minute despite nothing happening: the skeksis dinner scene, a couple of panning shots of the flora and fauna with no characters in it, and so on. These shots serve specifically to help build the world, to establish the rich tapestry that is a completely new world, totally unseen before.

And that's what I love about The Dark Crystal. It creates an entire world wholecloth, with less influence from previous sources than any other fantasy setting. No other film has done this so well (with the possible exception of Avatar). It was a wholly creative endeavor, in which the creators made something completely new.

Getting to the Point

So, we're... a ways in, and I still haven't said anything about the new series.

The movie was not an action film by any stretch. It was more philosophical than anything else, and though it might be considered an action film for kids (in the same way that Coraline is a horror film for kids), its epic scale is all about the world building, and not so much about the story or the characters.

Age of Resistance, on the other hand, is more along the lines of Game of Thrones. It is grand and epic, with a large cast, telling a grand story about grand characters.

Let me skip to the end: I loved it. It was a very different kind of story, and it obviously wasn't a work of creative generation, as it is returning to a world that had already been created by someone else. Sure, it was creative in the sense that it developed a lot more of the world that we had seen in the original film. But it was still the same world.

It is a world that I love. Have loved, ever since I was very young and first saw the film at the cinema. And I am very grateful to be able to return to that world. I felt in a few places that Age of Resistance suffers from the problem that many prequels have: it tries too hard to shoehorn in as much of the source material as it can. There were a few points where they made reference to something from the original film, and I felt myself wondering if it was really necessary to make that reference. It didn't detract from my enjoyment too much; just a minor observation.

So I guess it all boils down to this: Did they stay true to the original film? Yes. Did they build it up and make it better? Sure, I'll agree with that statement. Will this series draw in new fans of the world of Thra? I believe it will. Was it a good story? Yeah, it certainly was. Did I find myself drawn in by the characters? I sure did (I really liked the character of Lore, for example). Was it visually beautiful?

Yes.

And that's the thing. Normally, I don't care about the visuals. I can enjoy a good story with crappy effects as long as the story itself is a good one. It's why I don't care for the huge blockbuster films that are so popular these days; Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Trek: Discovery are all very visually impressive, but the stories don't do anything for me. I loved Girl with a Dragon Tattoo despite the lack of any impressive visuals, because the story was great, the characters were compelling, dynamic, and believable, and the story was well told.

But The Dark Crystal (and, by extension, Age of Resistance) is the exception to that. It's the richness of the world that is best conveyed by a visual medium that makes me love it so. For this one fandom, the visuals are paramount. And Age of Resistance absolutely delivers. There were so many times when I watched the series and saw something that was so stunningly beautiful, so visually impressive, so jaw-droppingly compelling in its rich detail, that my breath was, quite literally, taken away.

I watched the entire series in a day. I plan to go back and rewatch it, an episode at a time, to savour it. And if you haven't watched it yet, I highly recommend that you do.

If I had one complaint (aside from the minor issue of too many references to the source material), it would be that Daniel Pemberton's soundtrack isn't quite as beautiful as the original score by Trevor Jones. But, in context, his music does work for the series. I really can't complain about it too much, because it does what it needs to do, and does it well.

So that's my review. I hope you enjoyed it. Next week, we'll get back to some gaming stuff. Until then, don't forget to

Game on!

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