Sunday, 10 November 2019

Jim Henson’s Dark Materials



In the early eighties, Jim Henson and Frank Oz transported cinemagoers to a world without human inhabitants in The Dark Crystal. The film took an audacious artistic twist by populating its tale with puppets only and eerily foreshadowed events in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi the following year.

Whilst The Dark Crystal failed to ignite the box office, considered uncommercial and too dark for children, over subsequent decades Henson's opus has built a cult following.

Sequels were often mooted but seemingly mired in development hell. Forever. Then, out of nowhere, Netflix announced a live-action prequel series chronicling the rise of evil that would envelop the world of Thra...

Guest post by Nick Smith

1982 was the year of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Tron and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Sci-fi fantasy movies were the big box office draw of the time, just as Marvel rules the airwaves today. So, at the tender age of ten, I took my little sister, Becky, to see an ostensibly sweet little flick called The Dark Crystal. It came from the house of Jim Henson, manufacturer of the must-see Muppet Show [a pivotal series in my life - Ed] that was such a hit. But, the movie we saw was cut from a different cloth than Miss Piggy and her felt friends.

Becky and I watched a twisted tale about back-stabbing bipedal vultures, raving pod people and a soul-sucking electric chair. Independent from Disney’s family fare, this film was no Mickey Mouse operation. It depicted the end of a decaying civilisation, rotten from the core. As we left the cinema humming impressions of the UrRu Mystics, The Dark Crystal left an indelible impression on our young minds.

Apparently, it had a lasting effect on other members of our generation too, as 37 years later, Netflix has gone all-out with a prequel series called Age of Resistance. While this initially seems an unlikely candidate for a contemporary series with an hour-long pilot, it’s an effective fantasy packed with thrills, a careful balance of toy store charm and Henson’s grotesque touch.

The Age of Resistance builds on the mythos of The Dark Crystal, fleshing out the original movie’s backstory. We find out how the antagonists’ soul-sucking machine was made and where the hero’s crystal shard came from. We see more of the celestial beings that split, Jekyll and Hyde-like, into gentle Mystic and rotten Skeksis – the same luminous form they will eventually return to. While the feature film showed a desolate world with a few good Gelflings left, the series is full of the little rascals, some peace-loving, some militant, all cute as a button.

The new series follows the adventures of do-good Gelflings Rian, Brea and Deet, opposing the crafty Skeksis. Aughra the grunting old Keeper of Secrets is back, younger and more powerful than she can admit. We catch a flash-forward glimpse of Jen, the hero from The Dark Crystal, and other beloved characters.

The series uses its lengthy 10 episodes to build a twisty-turny tragic plot, but also to develop its characters in a way the feature film could not; we get up close and too personal with the ugly Skeksis in their fortress, giving plenty of rancid meaty dialogue for the voice actors to get their teeth into. Mark Hamill (Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker) is the standout as the hard-hearted skekTek, simply because Hamill seems to be having so much fun playing the Scientist. Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy) is convincing as the Emperor, while Simon Pegg (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible) relishes the role of the snivelling Chamberlain.

The Gelflings are voiced by equally dependable actors such as Helena Bonham Carter, Taron Egerton and Eddie Izzard. Thanks to their skill and the lifelike puppetry, we grow to care about the creatures. Although there are no humans on the planet Thra, where Age of Resistance takes place, the characters are very human, with relatable feelings and goals. With their selfish plotting and in-fighting, vain beauty treatments, mistreatment of their environment and focus on industry over nature, the Skeksis are sadly the most human of all. As we explore Thra with Rian and his pals through amazing landscapes, facing danger, cruelty and loud Podling music, it’s hard not to shed a tear when some of the heroes die or even sacrifice their lives for the greater good [proper choked me up - Ed].

The series isn’t perfect. The adventure plot can be repetitive and unoriginal at times. It’s hard to take the Fraggle-like Gelflings seriously when they bounce around the screen. There are a lot of characters to keep track of and a lot of death. The show has a delicious sadistic streak that will have you watching some scenes through your fingers. Others, like the one where a little Gelfling almost gets his head crushed and a Mystic risks his existence to save the day, had me blubbing. So, be prepared for a Kermit-in-a-blender emotional whirlwind.

The Dark Crystal movie has a distinct ending, with the Skeksis empire ending its ragged reign. So far, most attempts at a spin-off have been prequels: the four novels by J. M. Lee, Barbara Kesel’s manga and Archaia Entertainment’s graphic novels. There’s obviously something rich and appealing about the world of Thra and since Age of Resistance has a big Roman numeral I in its title logo, there will be more prequel series [exploring Deet’s dark fate - Ed] to come.

Like all the best fantasy and sci-fi, The Dark Crystal turns an orrery lens on our own society. Thra is a scrambled almost-version of Earth, with greedy creatures reflecting the evil that men do. We are the Skeksis. But at our best, when we wake up feeling honourable and kind, we can be Gelflings… just for one day.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is streaming now on Netflix.

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