“The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” Review!

Right up front, I’m going to express my disappointment that my review of Netflix’s new original series is not quite as glowing as certain others are. Not only do I disagree with Rotten Tomatoes’ 89% Fresh rating, but I don’t understand it. I do notice, though, that the series is not rated Certified Fresh, which is some relief to me, writing this ballad of a sadly underwhelmed audience-member. Audiences across the world seem to be greatly enjoying The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance, but it’s rather hard to figure out whether that excitement comes from hardcore Dark Crystal fans or mainstream Netflix-watchers. I’m going to guess the former, because this show seemed, at least to me, to have very little mainstream appeal. Let’s discuss.

Firstly, puppets. Puppets can be wonderful fun, and, if done right, with charm and humor, they can even be fun to watch onscreen: countless Muppet movies (great Muppet movies, at that) and the huge success of Sesame Street prove that. But unfortunately, charm and humor are two noticeable absences in the Dark Crystal franchise, which is both grim and serious, and incredibly macabre – even nightmarish, but we’ll get to that. Where Jim Henson’s other movies had fun and dance, musical numbers, cameos from human actors and a general atmosphere of carefree recklessness, his original Dark Crystal was an attempt to pivot away from that image. It deserves praise for the fact that it was one of the first big fantasy epics, and its creation was a huge undertaking. However, when it released in 1982, it was not the massive success that Henson had hoped for, receiving a mixed response from both critics and audiences. Those who did fall in love with it, however, never fell out of love, and so the new Netflix prequel has a small, but loyal niche fanbase that it wants to attract. As for me, I have never loved the original movie: I hated it, in fact. The puppets, with their strange, glassy eyes and grotesque rogues gallery of bird-like Skeksis, all living on what was supposed to be a barren alien planet – not my thing.

That’s probably at least partly why this new series just wasn’t for me. The puppets haven’t changed in the decades since the original movie was released. I am not an expert on puppet technology, but as far as I can tell, an effort has been made to use the same sort of techniques as Jim Henson did all those years ago: over-zealous loyalty to a project is not unheard of, and can be understandable, if said project doesn’t really require major changes for modern audiences to enjoy it. Dark Crystal, however, is outdated, and makes no effort to change that: the story is still a huge, intricate mess of mythology, religion, philosophy and fantasy cliches; the puppets are still obviously puppets, and their glassy-eyed stares remain their signature feature.

I intend no disrespect to the series’ puppeteers, who do an excellent job: their work is incredible, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I also have huge respect for the amazing voice cast: many of the actors are quite good in their roles, though there are more than a few who only show up once or twice and have barely any dialogue: Alicia Vikander, Natalie Dormer, Hannah John-Kamen and Mark Strong are some of the latter – of the former, we have Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Donna Kimball and Lena Headey to thank, for making this show ever so slightly more entertaining than it would otherwise have been. I’ll spare some praise for Sigourney Weaver, who gets to narrate the opening of the first episode.

As for the characters these hugely-talented actors and actresses are voicing, well…watching their individual stories isn’t always quite as interesting as playing Who’s Who with the voice cast, but there are a few I can think of: Mother Aughra (Donna Kimball), the benevolent but cranky guardian of Thra, is especially fun to watch, and the puppeteers gave her enough quirky little traits, from facial movements to her distinctive style of dancing, that make her seem like an actual character, rather than some of the thin, underdeveloped cardboard cutouts that pass for protagonists in this series. Tavra, Seladon and Brea, the three sundered daughters of the All-Maudra (Helena Bonham-Carter), are also especially interesting, and the way that their stories diverge and reunite is imaginative. But of these, only Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a main character: for the most part, we’re stuck watching Rian (Taron Egerton) either walking from place to place, or stopping to share his memories with literally everybody he meets (after the third or fourth of these long, redundant, dream-sharing encounters, I was ready to turn off the show). Deet the Grotten (Nathalie Emmanuel) is somewhat more interesting, but her story takes a bizarre and unexplained twist in the last few episodes. As for Maudra Fara, she’s actually quite likable, which is somewhat conflicting, considering that she speaks with the villainous voice of Lena Headey, who portrayed the evil Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones.

Talking of villains, it’s time to discuss those which dwell in Thra, and present the main threat to our Gelfling heroes. The Skeksis, repugnant vulture-people from another world, who have subjugated the Gelfling people and enslaved the Crystal of Truth to their will. I want to take a moment to point out that, somehow, the Gelflings, who are shown to have vaguely-human aesthetics and personalities, are completely oblivious to the fact that gigantic, hulking anthropomorphic vultures living in a claw-shaped Gothic castle might be evil. The Skeksis are absolutely revolting and repulsive, with zero redeemable qualities, and no actual personalities to speak of – so why, then, do we spend about fifty percent of the show’s screentime watching them squabble pointlessly, in a boring parody of Game of Thrones‘ layered dynastic rivalry and wars for the throne. There are so many pointless scenes of Skeksis eating, I thought I might lose my mind: if not my appetite. This is a personal preference, but I cannot stand two types of villain: (a) the CGI-construct with no personality who yells “Kill them all!” and dumb stuff like that (Azog from The Hobbit fits the bill), and (b) pompous, swaggering, disgusting buffoons (such as the Master of Lake-town from The Hobbit). The Skeksis combine the worst elements of both of these villain cliches, and take them to the next level. Only The Hunter even came close to being an intimidating antagonist, but his supporting character-status was undeserved and infuriating.

All this is truly saddening, because the Skeksis could have been excellent. If I had been the showrunner, I would have probably changed their appearance, first of all: wouldn’t resplendent peacock-feathers or gaudy, glorious plumage have done the trick of showing Skeksi greed and avarice just as well as bald, wrinkly faces and harsh, raspy evil laughter? This is a prequel, for Thra’s sake – they could have done anything with the Skeksis! The possibilities were endless. There were themes and shades of some of the great fantasy villains at work here, but none ever reached full potential: the Skeksi fear of death and their desperate attempts to evade it, for example, resembled the actions of Tolkien’s Numenoreans, clinging to life at all costs, warring on the earth and the gods in the faint hope of winning immortality.

It’s not the only Tolkien theme glimpsed in Age of Resistance: in the very first episode, while a Skeksi narrates about the inevitability of evil and how the strong will always conquer the weak, we watch a montage which proves otherwise, showing various Gelfling heroes starting out on their individual quests for justice and truth, in a reverse of Sam Gamgee’s “stories that really matter” speech at the end of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers (which is also on Netflix, now, by the way). The series has very Tolkienesque ecological messaging, and the Gelflings, bound up with the fate of Thra, are nothing if not a hybrid between Tolkien’s hobbits and elves. But sadly, these themes get buried under so many fantasy plot points (magic sword! prophecies! mystic arts!) that it’s hard to find them at first.

All in all, the series is far too long. I flew through the first three episodes, even if they were rather weak, and the fourth through sixth episodes were actually quite good: seven through ten, however, drag the story out far too long. The eventual finale lands with a resounding thud: a more disappointing climax, I could not envision. That might be because the series tries too hard to make you want to go watch Dark Crystal after it’s finished, which is something I do not want to do, and don’t ever want to do again. So many things are left unanswered, and the final showdown between Gelflings and Skeksis is so underwhelming – was it because full-out puppet war is rather hard to manage? Did the budget not allow for it? I don’t know: all I can say for certain is that I was hugely disappointed.

It’s unfortunate. I really wanted to like it. The trailers showed off stunning visual beauty, Gelfling heroics, and epic warfare: unfortunately, in the actual series, these things are few and far between. If you’re a puppet nerd, a hardcore sword-and-sorcery fan, or a Henson completionist, I urge you to watch this series, since you might enjoy it far more than I did. But all that I’m left with is the feeling that I wasted time on this series, when I could have been…oh, I don’t know, watching The Two Towers instead. It’s all the same stuff, but it doesn’t have creepy vulture-puppets.

Series Rating: 5/10

“Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” Final Trailer!

The Darkening is upon us in the final trailer for Netflix’s Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance, the prequel series to Jim Henson’s cult-classic Dark Crystal. Personally, I never knew we needed a prequel to that film. But then again, I also never knew I would actually be interested in that prequel.

This series looks…good. It still looks kind of terrifying and weird, because it still relies on puppets – and these aren’t the types of puppets you see on Sesame Street: they’re slightly more realistic, in a weird, distorted sort of way, and some of them are huge lurking vulture-creatures called Skeksis, who want to control the magical world of Thra. None of them are particularly adorable or endearing, which could end up being a turn-off for some people. I’m trying not to get freaked out by them, though, because the story looks insanely epic. There’s amazing visuals, an incredible voice-cast, and a compelling message of hope, inspiration, and courage. At least, I think the message is one of hope – I can’t really remember anything from Dark Crystal except that there were lots of vulture Skeksis, so I’m going to assume that the resistance in Age Of Resistance possibly doesn’t eradicate them entirely? Honestly, I don’t know, so I’ll be going into this series pretty much blind. And yes, I will be watching it, no matter how frightening it is.

I was already sold when Lena Headey joined the cast, but this trailer has done a lot to cement my hopes for the show: this trailer is everything I needed it to be – the stakes are high, the thrills are intense, the range of emotion coming from these puppets is disturbing. I feel invested in the arcs of our protagonists, Deet, Rian and Brea…even  if I don’t know which is which yet. Maybe it’s the stirring music, or the beautiful narration about the fragility of hope, which “catches the light, splitting the darkness, revealing your destiny”. Maybe it’s just because I still feel shell-shocked and I’m not even realizing that I’m seriously considering watching an entire series about creepy puppet-people.

While I sort out my emotional trauma, I’ll pose the question to you: are you planning to watch Age Of Resistance when it debuts on August 30th? Are you scared of the Gelflings and the Skeksis? Are you totally comfortable with the idea of watching scary Muppets fight to the death for the freedom of their alien world, and if so, do you think you should seek help?

Trailer Rating: 8/10

“The King’s Man” First Trailer!

No offense to director Matthew Vaughn, but now was probably the worst possible time to release this trailer. At least for me – probably only for me.

You see, I have only recently finished watching The Last Czars on Netflix: a semi-dramatized documentary about the final days of the Russian Czar Nicholas and his entire family, who were brutally murdered in 1918 during the Bolshevik Revolution. Their story was very closely linked with that of the highly mysterious monk and spiritual healer Grigori Rasputin. Now, I went into this six-episode series knowing full well what happened to each and every one of these people, and how they died horrific deaths: what I did not know was how the series would choose to depict each and every one in the most awful ways imaginable – from Rasputin’s terrifying ability to defy death several times even while he was poisoned and brutally injured, to the slow and agonizing deaths of the Czar’s four daughters, who were probably the last of the family to perish since they were wearing diamonds sewn into their clothes, granting them a temporary immunity to their murderers’ bullets. I was expecting the deaths to happen off-screen, preferably with a minimum amount of anguished screaming. I watched it at night (could it get any worse?), and I couldn’t sleep for hours afterward. The next morning I tried as hard as I could to forget what I had just witnessed.

And who shows up in today’s first trailer for the upcoming spy thriller The King’s Man? That’s right – the bearded monk Rasputin, looking rather more fictionalized, and showing an impressive skill at wielding…glass ornaments? Teapots? I’m not entirely sure what he’s holding at the 1:18 mark, but it’s also very difficult to focus on anything other than those wide eyes, eyes which supposedly hypnotized and enchanted the Czarina of Russia, to the point where she was unable to break free of his spell. I suspect we even see the Czarina in the trailer: one of the two women clinging to Rasputin’s arm as he strides through an elegant ballroom. Then again, the characters in this film are clearly only loosed based on their historical counterparts, since the IMDb page reveals that the fabled spy Mata Hari will also be in this movie, played by Gemma Arterton (who’s been getting her fair share of spy thrillers recently, coming off the unexpected success of Murder Mystery on Netflix), alongside characters like Field Marshall Haig; U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and King George V of England, all played by Tom Hollander, which makes me suggest that somehow all three warring heads of state are going to be revealed to be the same man; and…and Rasputin’s real-life killer, the Russian prince Felix Yusupov (played by Daniel Brühl, Marvel’s “Baron Zemo”).

And this is what has me slightly upset. Not the fact that Rasputin is actually as terrifying as all get-out, and his portrayal in this film by Rhys Ifans looks even freakier (well, okay, that too), but the knowledge that this film is going to necessarily fictionalize a whole bunch of this part of history. Now, don’t get me wrong: I like historical fiction. Usually, seeing Mata Hari cross paths with Rasputin wouldn’t be a problem for me – but coming at this time, just after I’ve watched the most grim, grisly, realistic depiction of this very intense period of human history…well, it’s just coming at a bad time. Especially because this has so much potential: it could do so many things – it could, for instance, seek to capitalize on the very popular myths of the “escape” of Russian princess Anastasia Romanov. Let me stress that those are myths: trust me, I’ve just watched the documentary – the bodies of all seven Romanovs have been found as of this writing, and Anastasia is among them. She did not escape, no matter how much we may want to believe that she did. I’m going to make myself cry just writing this, because I loved imagining all the creative ways in which she could have made her daring escape from the House of Special Purpose. But, sadly, none of it’s true.

Anyway…that’s all I’m trying to say. At this moment, watching this trailer, my emotions on the subject are very raw, and I’m not currently relishing the idea of watching our British protagonists smuggle the princess out of Russia before the Bolsheviks (or Mata Hari?) can catch her. I don’t even know if that’s one of the film’s plot points – but if it is, I’d rather not know about it for a little while.

Moving on. The rest of the trailer looks really good, though I do have one other complaint. Namely, that this film already looks like it’s trying to copy certain aspects of my all-time favorite World War 1 film, Wonder Woman. Like, literally, right down to some of the shots in the trailer, such as when Ralph Fiennes (I think it’s him, at any rate) gets thrown through a wall by an explosion, while holding what looks to be a Germanic shield of some sort: it’s basically this shot:

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But with a lot less dimension: seriously, if you’re going to throw a guy through a wall, have him…I don’t know, fall from a height or something? Instead the man in question just falls onto a really barren patch of gray dirt. Not very visually interesting, if you ask me.

Aside from probably coincidental similarities (such as the scene of British soldiers going up over the trenches), we also have the peculiar appearance of a very familiar name in the cast: that of General Ludendorff, whom Wonder Woman fans will remember for his large role in that film, where he was…a glowing superhuman possessed by the Greek god Ares. I know, I was just complaining about fictionalization.

But leaving all that aside, I’m still a sucker for anything set during the Great War; I like Ralph Fiennes as an actor; and I think this film definitely has potential. It’s got elegance, wit, and a good dose of classic British daring-do. Let’s see how it is – and whether it’s got Mata Hari smuggling Anastasia out of a Russian empire controlled by King George – before we make any assumptions.

Trailer Rating: 6/10