Photo: Kevin Baker

The New ‘Dark Crystal’ Series Is That Pure, Uncut Fantasy-Nerd Shit

Netflix’s prequel epic ‘Age of Resistance’ couldn’t be less cool. That’s why fans will love it.

Used to be, a nerd was a nerd. A generation ago, comic-book nerds were ridiculed for their pathetic obsession with stories of leotard-clad grown men fighting crime while rocking silly names like the Flash and Green Lantern. Nerds were clearly losers, and they knew it, silently accepting the shunning the rest of society imposed upon them. But now, superhero cinema is a cultural colossus, conferring popularity on what once seemed like just a sad, niche passion. So it’s hard to call comics fans “nerds” when seemingly everyone on the planet suddenly cares about Avengers movies.

All of us are nerds about something, and one of the key components of our nerdom is that, deep down, we understand that the thing we love is weird or uncool. If anything, that’s part of why we love it — it’s ours, and if most people don’t get our passion, well, that’s their problem. We live in a world where Mike Trout is a massive Weather Channel dork, so anything the rest of us adore is, comparatively speaking, not that big of a deal. Still, true nerdom involves a bittersweet mixture of shame and devotion: I know this thing is lame, but I dig it anyway. 

I have no idea how a rational human being will react to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the new Netflix fantasy series that’s a prequel to the cult 1982 film. Over its 10 episodes and roughly eight-plus hours, the show involves tortuously complicated world-building, reams of corny dialogue, plenty of harrowing sequences that are probably too intense for kids and tons and tons of old-school puppetry. It’s often a slog and frequently feels like a sub-Tolkien tour through semi-enchanted lands filled with endless amounts of dully heroic characters and capital-E evil villains. Also, there is a crystal that, like, controls the fate of the mystical planet where the whole thing is set. I was bored a lot of the time, but when I wasn’t, I often found it enrapturing — and that’s because it reconnected me to an undeniable nerd sweet spot that’s been long buried. I don’t think Age of Resistance is that good. But I have to say: It is very much my shit.

1982’s The Dark Crystal was an ambitious folly from co-director and producer Jim Henson. Yes, the man behind the Muppets decided he wanted to use his commercial clout to make a dark children’s film about a land called Thra, which had been devastated by, uh, discord or something. Telling of the battle between the noble Gelfling — they’re kinda like Hobbits — and the monstrous, dinosaur-looking Skeksis, The Dark Crystal featured puppets as its main characters, creating a world far removed from the sunny benevolence of The Muppet Show.

Long before Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy legitimized J.R.R. Tolkien’s ridiculously dense Middle-Earth adventures for millions of filmgoers, Henson and co-director Frank Oz gave unsuspecting kids a somber, occasionally disturbing tale that touched on genocide and ecological destruction. I was seven when I first saw the movie, which was probably way too young for a movie this mature and disturbing. And like lots of kids exposed to stuff before they’re old enough to handle it, I became fairly obsessed with the film. Then I grew up and forgot all about it. 

I’ve long been opposed to nostalgia — no one cares what you loved as a kid — so I approached the Netflix series with a bit of hesitation. I haven’t watched The Dark Crystal for decades and only had the barest recollection of what it was about. But within the first half an hour of Age of Resistance, I was suddenly plunged back into this bizarre realm — not the story, per se, but the show’s funky, nerdy ethos. And even when I didn’t like Age of Resistance, I felt drawn to it.

Nobody who doesn’t already care about The Dark Crystal will probably bother with this prequel series, which explains how the Gelfling discovered that their overlords the Skeksis were harvesting their essence to stay young, which will lead to revolution. By the way, if that last sentence was painfully boring to read, trust me: It’s not as tedious as having to type it, or even worse, having to sit through all 10 episodes to watch the plot play out. Age of Resistance begins like a lot of fantasy films/shows in which we must first endure a complicated explanation of this fictional universe, its different species and the minutiae of its class structure. No matter how lovely narrator Sigourney Weaver’s voice is, even she can’t make me care about gobbledygook like “Thra, a wondrous planet circling three suns — and its center, the Crystal of Truth, the heart of Thra and the source of all life. Since the land was young, Aughra protected the Crystal…”

It goes on like that interminably for several minutes before the story actually gets going. (“I tried one [episode],” a colleague complained to me, “and the first 10 minutes made my eyes glaze over.”) Age of Resistance does hit its stride eventually, but it never fully departs from the super-dorky, overly complex mythos that kicks off everything. This is the kind of geek entertainment that expects you to keep straight half-a-dozen different lands, a few disparate races of bizarre creatures and complicated power shifts that occur between rival bad guys. Age of Resistance isn’t so much a TV series as it is a collection of footnotes, callbacks and random magic interrupted by the occasional action sequence. Or as more than one critic has noted, it’s like Game of Thrones with puppets.

But while the show doesn’t entirely work, I found myself developing a fondness for its nerdy earnestness — its blatant refusal to acknowledge the sheer silly antiquatedness of its mission. Age of Resistance is accentuated by CGI, but Henson’s original intention to fill this fantasy world with puppets remains intact by director Louis Leterrier, who previously made the supremely cheesy Clash of the Titans remake and Now You See Me, which somehow made magician thieves boring. When we think of sincere puppets nowadays, perhaps we flash back to the satirical Team America, in which the stringed characters swore and screwed. (Or, less successfully, last year’s terrible R-rated puppet comedy The Happytime Murders). Outside of the Muppets, old-school puppets are about the most uncool thing there is, and yet Age of Resistance is convinced that an epic drama about the fate of an imperiled planet can be told entirely through felt, fabric and latex. That misplaced confidence is downright touching. 

If it’s not clear already, I’m making fun of Age of Resistance so much because I was shocked by how much I got wrapped up in it. Henson, who died in 1990 at the age of 53, was always hipper than his “children’s entertainer” moniker would have you believe. He didn’t just want to make cute puppets but, rather, create the sense of living creatures. As a kid, what I loved about The Dark Crystal was that the intricacy of its puppetry — not just the design, but the artistry and the puppeteers’ ability to bring the characters to life — made them seem nobler and better than actual people. There was a purity and vulnerability to their behavior — complemented by the square simplicity of the dialogue — that seemed to capture something elemental about being a thinking, feeling person in the world. It was corny, but it was also beautiful. 

Battles between good and evil — and the ugly reality of society’s darker instincts — were laid out resonantly in The Dark Crystal. And, impressively, those themes also appear a lot in Age of Resistance, which is often gummed up by subplots and narrative busyness but, nevertheless, exudes the same seriousness of purpose as the original movie. You’ve seen enough Trump-inspired dystopian art in the last couple years, and I wouldn’t ever suggest that this Netflix series is more trenchant than, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. But it retains Henson’s belief that young people can handle troubling ideas and images. I need to avoid spoilers, but bad things happen in Age of Resistance, and the Skeksis are just as unpleasant as they’ve ever been. Genocide, fake news, fascism, global warming and tyranny are boldly at the series’ center. It’s not always entertaining, but the effort and labor spent delivering such an uneven epic is oddly stirring. If you think about it, that’s a way to define heroism: fearlessly taking the leap, even if you don’t know if you’ll end up landing flat on your face.

But most of all, Age of Resistance spoke to something very nerdy deep in me — that inexplicable love for this kind of bygone fantasy ridiculousness that has yet to be redeemed by a smash film franchise. Like The Dark Crystal, this prequel series is probably doomed to be a cult curiosity that has its admirers but will never touch the collective consciousness. The show is so deeply uncool that it’s embarrassing. But a certain type of nerd will love the hell out of it.

Here are three other takeaways from The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

#1. Frank Oz really hates what’s become of the Muppets. 

Jim Henson, the Muppets and Sesame Street are so intertwined in the public’s mind that it’s important to remember that, at least for now, they’re actually somewhat separate entities. It’s so complicated I’ll simply point you to this helpful overview, but briefly: Disney owns the Muppets but not Sesame Street, and the Jim Henson Company was behind last year’s The Happytime Murders and produced Age of Resistance. (The full name of the series is actually Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.) Sesame Street uses the Muppets but wasn’t created by Henson, who did create The Muppet Show. It can be awfully confusing.

But someone who’s long been central to these occasionally intersecting worlds has been Frank Oz, who memorably voiced and puppeteered Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster and others. (Later, he played Yoda in the Star Wars films.) The Dark Crystal, which he co-directed with Henson, was the first movie he ever made, eventually going on to helm Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, In & Out and Bowfinger. You might think he’d be involved with Age of Resistance, but he declined to participate in the prequel series. This isn’t a surprise: He hasn’t been fond of much Muppet-related projects of late. 

In fact, it’s become a weird tradition: A new Muppets endeavor will come out, and then Oz goes public with his disapproval. In 2011, The Muppets proved to be a charming, funny reboot of the franchise, and I thought 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted was even better, although that’s more of a minority opinion. Well, Oz didn’t like either film. “I thought the first one was really smarmy,” he said earlier this year. “These are my brothers and sisters working in the movie, and they didn’t have a good time. When we did movies, we had a great time because Jim was collaborative. That is not what happened in the first movie. I thought there was wonderful things in it, but in general, I start to vomit when things get oversentimental and sweet. It’s all because Disney doesn’t understand purity.” 

At that same event, which took place at South by Southwest, he also let it be known that Sesame Street is bad now. “Unfortunately Sesame Street is only a shadow of what it was because now they’re just aiming it to little kids,” he declared. “And I’m unhappy about that. I would like to be there. I used to go like two days a year just to show everybody how it used to be.” And when he was asked about being approached to work on Age of Resistance, he replied, “I was asked to do it. I declined. I don’t think about puppets. I think about character. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be glib. I really don’t think that way. I don’t have any ideas at all.” 

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Put a microphone or a recorder in front of Oz, and the odds are good he’ll start lambasting recent Muppet works. ABC’s short-lived and poorly reviewed 2015 series The Muppets inspired Oz to tell Variety in 2017 that he switched it off after 15 minutes. “I felt the show wasn’t true to the characters,” he said. “There was a purity in each character that was vital. I felt that purity was being moved around to areas that didn’t feel right.” He was a little kinder to Muppets Most Wanted — “I think there were some very funny things individually” — but he expressed a frustration at how a new generation of artists was approaching the characters. “It’s like you’re a fan of Formula One racing, you go to every race,” he commented. “But being a fan of it and driving it are different things. They are fans and they want to drive it as well; it’s not as easy as people think.”

Oz has yet to comment on Age of Resistance. I have a hunch, though, that, as faithful as the series is to the original movie, he will still be displeased.

#2. Simon Pegg might be the series’ MVP. 

The original Dark Crystal didn’t feature a starry cast, focusing on expert voice actors and Henson alums rather than A-list celebrities. But Age of Resistance amps up the big-name firepower: Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Awkwafina, Jason Isaacs, Mark Hamill, Keegan-Michael Key, Caitriona Balfe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alicia Vikander, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Harvey Fierstein, Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Jones and Natalie Dormer are all part of this sprawling show.

But I think my favorite performance belongs to Simon Pegg, who has a crucial role in Age of Resistance, especially if you know the 1982 movie. He plays the Chamberlain, who in the film is a conniving Skeksis hungry for the throne voiced by Barry Dennen. (If you don’t recognize the name, he’s the other guy in that opening interview scene from The Shining.) Dennen died in 2017, but for fantasy fans he’ll always be a memorable bad guy. Mostly, it’s because of that terrific sniveling voice he gave the Chamberlain: 

Without spoiling anything, let’s just say that the Chamberlain is a huge part of this prequel series, and Pegg mimics Dennen’s voice brilliantly — so much so that I assumed it was Dennen. Actors are praised for “disappearing” into roles all the time, but what Pegg does is different because he’s really shaping his voice to capture the cadence and tenor of the Chamberlain. 

This is not easy: Anybody who grew up with the Muppets in their heyday remembers that moment when the original voice cast gave way to new actors. As much as Steve Whitmire and Matt Vogel have tried to embody the spirit of Kermit, they’ll never recapture that indefinable essence that Jim Henson brought to the voice — there’s something elemental that can’t be duplicated. Marvelously, Pegg honors Dennen’s performance — and, in the process, gives us a Chamberlain who’s just as indelible.

#3. Remember when ‘Robot Chicken’ did a ‘Dark Crystal’ rap?

Robot Chicken has been around since 2005, and they’ve parodied everything from Voltron to “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” to Toy Story to Alvin and the Chipmunks. So it should not be a surprise that they’ve taken a crack at The Dark Crystal as well. Guess what: It’s not very funny. 

This is from a 2009 episode in which the guys are trying to figure out a fresh take on the movie — “something that really tricks kids into thinking they want to see a movie about puppets.” Answer: Make it a hip-hop musical.

Get it? Dark Cristal?

God, I hope Frank Oz never saw this bit.