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The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019) - First Teaser, Impressions and Gothic Content

This write-up concerns my initial thoughts about  The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (2019), including its new trailer. I also consider how Gothic its dark fantasy approach is. Spoilers!

Based off the writings of Jim Henson and Dave Odell, Age of Resistance is the upcoming Dark Crystal miniseries. Set inside their dark, enchanting world, much is the same as it was, decades ago (more than you might expect in this age of soulless reboots and nostalgia cash-grabs). However, there are some differences, too. For example, in the original Dark Crystal (1982), the imagery spoke solely for itself. The only names belonged to Aughra, Jen, Fizzgig and Kira. Virtually everyone else was a position ("Chancellor") or entity ("podlings"). It was a simple, fairy tale world.

Things will be less simple, this time. Mark my words.

In Age of Resistance, the purpose of our visit is educational: to explore much of what Henson and company left out, back in 1982. For one, the world has a name, this time around. To be fair, it always had name (see: "World and Cosmology"), but this time we're actually told what it is: Thra. As for the Skesis and Mystics, the trailer doesn't trot them out by their actual, unspoken names. They've always had names (of the Skesis-Mystic sort) and I'm sure we're learn some, if not all of those, when the episodes debut.

There will be more gelfling, too. The trailer makes that plain. In fact, there appears to more of everything—more color, motion, and camera angles; and more theater, in spades. Similar to Castlevania, season two (2018), Age of Resistance is less of a fantasy battle between good and evil, and more of a court drama (the oppression narrative is undoubtedly important, too). This is good; I loved the "Trial by Stone" scene from the original, and want to see more of that, in Age of Resistance. I'm not ashamed to admit that I want more action, too. If the trailer is anything to go by, I think I'll be getting my wish:

Pulling a Robin Hood: A leap from the castle ramparts, down into the moat, below...

This kind of action was barely possible, in 1982. Everything floats or strolls, in that movie. To this, I think the costumes and puppets were especially kick-ass (and nightmarish) to compensate for the lack of overt, physical movement. Alien (1979) was the same, its monster strangely beautiful and hidden to make up for how stiff the latex suit actually was. In the sequel, Cameron's xenomorphs were faster and more plentiful; there remained plenty of room for surprises and character development. For much the same reasons, I think Age of Resistance will be equally enjoyable. There's more, but it doesn't replace what made the original so awesome, to begin with.

These technological improvements are simply the result of a prequel made forty years later. However, the narrative renovations are not fabrications, created after the fact. No, this information was fleshed out by Henson, Froud and Odell, decades ago. However, it also never made the cut. Instead, the information was "forgotten" in the original, 1982 film. There was no name for the world; it was simply "another world, another time, in an age of wonder!" In it, the castle of the Skesis loomed, and from its twisted base yawned jagged fissures. Up from those, lightning flickered. Like its owners, the castle was twisted and monstrous. A power center, it housed "their treasure, their fate, the Dark Crystal."

Back in 1982, that's all you needed to know for the story work. It's functional, if a tad anemic. By comparison, much of the miniseries' lore is academic. I suspect the reasons why are less than cheerful. Then again, there's no need to suspect, when the ending is already known.  Anyone who's seen the original knows what happened after the prequel: All of the gelfling were killed. The so-called "Age of Resistance" is futile. Akin to Star Wars: Rogue One (2015), the gelfling we see in the trailer are ghosts.

None of these gelfling survive the Garthim Wars.

Heroes of the unsung sort, the world that bore Rian, Deet and Brea is a forgetful one. Like Thra, we are forced to remember—in part because the relics were buried, and partly because no one was alive in The Dark Crystal  to remember them: Jen and Kira were ostensibly the last of their kind. Even if there were hypothetically more gelflings than Jen and Kira, the gelfling clearly lost the fight. Whatever happened, the Skesis exterminated nearly all of them; their own incredulity is palpable at seeing their genocide fail  ("A gelfling alive?").

All of this is known to the viewer before the story even starts. Is this a problem, though? Is there any room for surprise and drama, when the heroes are doomed to die? That remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this makes the role of the heroes in Age of Resistance an unenviable one: They do not survive against the Skesis. In turn, the Skesis live to die another day. They are eventually defeated, but not here. This is not a story where the heroes win, or live to see themselves avenged; it is a tragedy. How many of those do 21st century audiences expect or even want?

Shakespeare is famous for his tragedies; Macbeth is a household name, as much as Oedipus Rex is, by Sophocles. Still, any heroic struggle needs a good villain; a tragedy needs them to be ruthless. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) failed at that, because Ryan Gosling's Joe was indestructible, the villains he fought less-than-smart, at times. The Shape of Water (2017) might seem tragic, except it kills the heroine and the villain. Age of Resistance seems to promise a rare sort of nefariousness: the successful kind, but also the cunning and the ruthless. In this case, the heroes have to give it their all and still fail—not because the villains were stupid, but because they were better prepared to win, and that's how life is.

These guys win. Sorry!

Despite the grim outlook, the trailer is rousing and pretty. I can see the heroes do their best to survive, and go down swinging. They cross swords, and swing from chandeliers. All very Errol Flynn. I would expect nothing less. However, nothing is more boring than the invincible hero nothing can touch; for me, effortless triumph turns sweet victory to ashes, in my mouth. The fact—that Age of Resistance does nothing to reinvent its own tragic past—is certainly promising. There's no sugar coat, here; the all-but-forgotten gelfling massacre is laid out before us...

What I enjoy most about this premise is the fact that much of this was written, but never used, in the 1982 original. I learned of this unseen world, in The World of the Dark Crystal: The Collector's Edition (2003). However, much of the history was chronicled, earlier than that. For example, at DarkCrystal.com, the making of the 1982 original is outlined, from start to finish. Similar to Alien (1979) being artistically catalyzed—by H. R. Giger's portfolio being shown to Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott—Brian Froud's The Land of Froud (1977) was shown to Jim Henson. From there, the two men signed a deal to make what eventually became The Dark Crystal, five years later. Henson wrote the basic story for the movie based on Froud's work, which he and David Odell eventually wrote the screenplay for.

The story is basic enough: There were gelfling. There was a prophecy. The tyrannical Skesis, currently in power, learned of the latter and exterminated the former to maintain their own position. The gelfling are the key to restoring balance, thereby ending Skesis domination. To prevent this, the Skesis erased the Gelfling. In essence, the Skesis took their names and their culture, and sentenced them to oblivion. With them gone, the past is "forgotten." Nothing but ruins remain, and even these must be disinterred:

Jen, at the gelfling ruins.

By itself, this concept—a forgotten trauma, an unspeakable past—is Gothic. However, Henson's fantasy is dark throughout. In The Dark Crystal, the Skesis are effectively mad scientists, harnessing the Crystal as a kind of Promethean object—

"For from the Castle [...] there spread out evil like a cloud, power that no longer led to Harmony. The light of the Suns lost its brilliance, the song of the Crystal was deadened. And as one standing in a mist on a mountainside forgets the sunlight, forgets the path and the world [...] so in all creatures that cloud of evil led their hearts to confusion."  —Aughra, "The Gelfling Gathering."

—Castles are traumatic, in Gothic stories. In novels, cinema and videogames, they act as sites of torment, out from which madness spreads, be it Bram Stoker's Transylvania, Ridley Scott's Nostromo, or Team Cherry's Hallownest. This miasma can be localized, but seldom pin-pointed. Instead, the castle is generally demolished. Sometimes, there's a genuine castle behind it, as the endings for The Castle of Otranto (1764) or The Dark Crystal prove; sometimes not.

In Age of Resistance, the castle has yet to fall. Out from the foundation, the shadow of the Dark Crystal stretches. The Crystal powers the Skesis, but also their castle; the castle houses the Crystal; the Crystal fuels the Garthim, and vampirically robs those who gaze upon it of their essence (which the Skesis drink). In some shape or form, its destructive power sows unrest, bringing with it ubiquitous calamity. It is quite literally chaos crystallized:

An eye of madness: "Feel the power of the Dark Crystal!"

In Henson's world, apocalypse is something to see. Sight is anything but reliable, however. Beheld, the Gordon infamously turns the viewer to stone; the Crystal is equally hazardous. Looking at it can sustain the viewer, but always at a cost. In some shape or form, it robs the viewer of their very selves. Echoes of it, like Deet's prophetic flower, promise such robbery as a kind of generalized anxiety or death omen. "Behold!" cries the voice, and Deet's eyes are filled with light; her mind is overwhelmed by fragmented visions of death and madness. There is light, and later, more light. Sometimes it warns one of danger. Sometimes, it blinds you and fries your brain. Good ol'-fashioned sanity damage.

When Deet sees the vision, she is confused. It must be mended, she decides. The Skesis are less keen on destroying their infernal power source. "In their madness and paranoia, they created the Garthim soldiers" by which to destroy the gelfling en masse. Everyone is troubled by the Crystal, but for different reasons. Nothing good comes from it, anymore than the Tain, the One Ring or the Necromonicon. Those, or the tyrannical evil associated with them (Cthulhu, Sauron, etc), call out from a nebulous, uncertain past (a very Gothic concept); so does the Crystal ("The Crystal calls! To the crystal chamber!").

To tell the story of the Age of Resistance, the screenwriters would only need to flesh out the characters Henson and Odell created, decades ago. However, of the three main Gelfling, only one, Rian, is listed on DarkCrystal.com, under "Some Known Gelfling, in Alphabetical Order." The other two, Brea and Deet, are not (the latter, in the trailer, is addressed by the voice in the grotto). Are Brea and Deet new characters, altogether? I cannot say for certain, but feel more confident regarding their archetypal role as Prophets and Questing Heroes:

Rian, Deet and Brea; a warrior, a seer, a mage(?).

Such a formula might sound stock. Perhaps it is. Luckily, narrative-wise, an "expansion story" is very much a selling point, for Age of Resistance. The original was basic; this time, there's more texture. Fortunately this extra textuality has a home in Henson's heart. It belongs there, and isn't some outsider shoehorned into the violet, sylvan scene. All of this is largely pulled from the archives, so those afraid of spurious, unregulated world-building can rest easy.

Doubtless there will be liberties, but few if any seem to be taken with the art direction. The Skesis and their castle are virtually identical to their 1982 selves; so is Aughra and her home. There is a modern layer of paint used to animate the puppets; lore-wise, nothing seems out of place. Preserving the art of the world is paramount. This is because much of the original's charm and horror came from its use of puppets and sets to tell a dark fantasy tale, stripped narratively to its bones. To fail the artistic vision would rob the miniseries of its right to call Age of Resistance Jim Henson's. They do call it Jim Henson's, though, and rightly so. The look of the original work is very much in place.

A familiar face; old-meets-new.

There are several new-looking factors. The chariot looks new, as do the Gelfling soldiers. Mainly, though, the trailer introduces a lot of familiar faces, ending with the Chancellor's infamous whimper. Unlike the trailer for Star Wars - Episode 9 (which ends with Palpatine's trademark cackle), I found the promises in Age of Resistance less empty or aimless. Assuming this is a single, self-contained season, the premise is fully fleshed out and has been for decades.

I don't fully agree with Louis Leterrier when he says, "The creativity in [The Dark Crystal] was [...] restricted only by the special effects tools of its day." While I'm not entirely for valorizing the past and its limitations as grounding the artistry to classic levels, I'm also leery of using modern technology to "improve" upon the original. To this, the vision of the original has aged nicely. All the same, there are a few sorry shots, and some of the action scenes are a tad awkward. For Age of Resistance, a good balance seems to have been struck between the puppetry and the digital milieu. Overt digital effects are supplied for dynamic motion and background images (which would've matte paintings, in 1982); static shots are performed with real puppets, and they look fantastic:

Aughra, in jaw-dropping detail.

Instead of "pulling a Disney" and replacing the original artwork with a more "realistic" digital visual style, Henson's trademark puppetry is augmented by modern visual effects. It is not nostalgia alone to sell the shots, but genuine craftsmanship as functional, not dysfunctional. In other words, there is a creepiness, but an intentional sort, not the Uncanny Valley. These puppets look and act as human as the people operating them. This is good.

Age of Resistance is a dark fantasy story working as intended, as a new story told in the spirit of the original, and pulled from Henson's unused canon. There's a chance to return to the world of Jim Henson, not simply ape it. As viewers, we've been offered a confident foray into a classic, dark fantasy world. I cannot wait to see more of it.

***

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