Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
YIN: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
The original 1982 film The Dark Crystal was never one in heavy rotation on my watchlist as a kid. In short, it pretty much just freaked me out. Now, sure, back then just about every kids movie was full of dark, scary, and surprisingly adult things, but this one was different somehow. Maybe it was the vile, emaciated birdlike Skeksis or maybe it was the fact that, honestly, I had trouble making sense of what all was happening. So when Netflix decided to revive the franchise as a prequel series, I wasn’t as excited as some of my contemporaries who recall the film with greater fondness. But, I was intrigued by the desire to recreate the magical puppeteering techniques of the old masters and the opportunity to dig in to and clarify some of those murky plotpoints.
With its release last month, the wait is over; but has it been worth it? Yes and no.
If you’re hardcore into the lore of the franchise, you’re likely to relish some of the intricacies and details explored in this entry. We learn that there are seven clans of Gelfling scattered around Thra, their homeworld, and they don’t all get along. They serve under the thumb of the Skeksis, a group of less than a dozen creatures who have been given the task as caretakers of the Crystal of Truth, and apparently control of the planet with it. The show explores various power struggles amongst both Gelflings and Skeksis, enough to allow cracks in their respective power for others to take advantage of. Meanwhile, a malevolent “darkening” is spreading throughout the land, threatening all life. And so, we’re heading for an inevitable clash between the groups for control, for power, and even for life itself.
It all sounds very dramatic and intriguing, and in many ways it is. But it’s a slow burn—quite often too slow. Though only 10 episodes in length, it really feels like it might have been better served with 6–8, as only the most devoted may have the patience and recognition to see where it’s all headed. That finale we already know, of course, from the film, which starts from a broken Thra and the Gelfling pair who rise up to save it. Thus, we know the series must be a downward spiral. That can either be fascinating or depressing depending on how invested you are in the characters and how well the story is laid out; unfortunately for us, neither quite rises to the occasion.
The Skeksis seem the most developed, but even there we’re given mostly placeholder stereotypes, as you can tell from their titular monikers. A few stand out, such as The Scientist (Mark Hamill) and The General (Benedict Wong), but the best is that sneaky sod from the film, The Chamberlain (Simon Pegg). Most of the time, the characters shout grandiose proclamations at each other with little true substance. There is some political maneuvering and backstabbing to keep things interesting, but the mutual goal is clear: the Skeksis want to extend their lives, and their rule, forever.
They do so by draining the life essence of the Gelfling, who seem more than happy to give their lives in subjugation until they are asked to do so literally. The distinction is honestly somewhat weak, not unlike the effectiveness of the Gelfling as the Skeksis’ guards (seriously, they are the worst guards ever. All of them.). When hero Rian (Taron Egerton) learns the nefarious secret after losing his closest friend (and only truly believable relationship), he struggles in vain for several episodes before being taken seriously. The sheer stubbornness and/or obliviousness of several characters is immensely frustrating, oftentimes a result of presenting them once again as stereotypes rather than as independent characters, with each simply reflecting a limited role or view rather than being fully developed people.
Add to that the lack of substantial relationships between the Gelfling. There are few scenes of true, heartfelt interaction. Instead, we get plenty of jokes, gags, and mugging cuteness. While it definitely picks up in the later episodes, by that point the damage has been done. In addition, there’s a pseudo love triangle that doesn’t quite pay off and more than a few aspects lifted (i.e., stolen) from other films (*cough*Avatar*cough*).
Credit where it is due, the best scene of the entire series for me takes place in Episode 5 (“She Knows All the Secrets”). In it, The Chamberlain and Rian have a true face to face confrontation, not of swords but of words, and we see the true manipulative power of The Chamberlain as he just about coerces Rian into seeing things his way. It’s an amazing scene, with several philosophical and ideological discussions, and challenges both characters on a fundamental level. Unfortunately, we don’t get anything that deep for the rest of the series. But it demonstrates that the capacity is there and that the potential within these characters is but being scratched at the surface.
All that being said, the show is a remarkable and glorious tribute to the sort of old-school puppetry my generation grew up on. The visuals are stunning, and the blend of in-camera work and supplemented CGI is seamless. Modern technology is capable of creating animatronic faces with far more emotive qualities, but given the choice to stick with the original designs, the performers do an admirable job squeezing the most out of each countenance. No surprise, the Skeksis in particular are given a number of subtle additions that really raise the bar, such as flicking tongues and gooey noses.
For fans of the original film, the series definitely fills in several blanks and expands the world to reflect a lively and expansive ecosystem and social order. We meet dozens of new characters to supplement the old, providing opportunities to show off the various cultures and provide plenty of roles for name actors to voice. However, so much time is spent showing off what they can do that much of the intimacy is lost. Despite the vastness of the world, the story itself is small and straightforward. Time might have been better allocated to more of those scenes like I mentioned above rather than grandstanding the visual spectacle. I say all this because in truth, the ingredients are all there! There are moments and aspects to each of the main characters that make you really wish to know more, to delve deeper. Some of them seem potentially quite fascinating, and I don’t think it would take a Herculean effort to give them proper due.
Should the series prove successful enough to warrant a second season, I hope they take this to heart. I truly want to be a fan of this beloved franchise, but I can’t help feeling that some of the same issues I had with the original are creeping in 37 years later. Let’s honor Jim Henson not by replicating his methods but by bringing his vision to life properly, on a level he might only have been able to dream of back then. With all the obvious talent that went into bringing the world of Thra back to life, I say make sure we do it justice, or leave it be.
YANG: Rambo: Last Blood
There’s been a lot of blood spilled between First Blood and Last Blood, and at some point you have start wondering if Sylvester Stallone and his fictional counterpart, John Rambo, have anything left to give after forty years in the mud. Based on this latest and potentially last entry, it pains me as a die-hard lifelong fan to say that I don’t think they do.
It’s been 11 years since we last saw the one-man army/Vietnam vet grace the screen with 2008’s Rambo. With fairly decent reviews and box office, it was praised for shining a light on the longest-running civil war in the world, the genocide of the Karen people by the Burmese army, but was criticized for its extreme, brutal, and graphic violence—even by Rambo standards. At the time, I dismissed the latter criticism because I understood the rationale that Stallone was trying to shock people into recognizing the atrocities being perpetuated on these people, and that even in films, war isn’t glamorous but harsh and disturbing. You’re meant to be unsettled by it. I thought it was a strong point and demonstrated the nature of the character as a machine of war who’d rather not be, who still cares despite himself and who will direct his deadly skills into some kind of positive direction, if there is such a thing.
But the makers of Last Blood seem to have taken the wrong lessons from that. Seeing people respond to the brutality, the decision was to simply ramp it up here, at least when they finally get around to it. Worst of all, after trying to get this particular storyline on film for over a decade, they seem to have forgotten the story they were trying to tell, and instead have released a husk mostly devoid of nuance, character, development, or substance.
Last Blood is a bland story, blandly told.
It picks up a decade on from the last, with Rambo having returned home to his family horse ranch in Arizona. In the interim, he’s become “Uncle John” to now 17-year-old Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal) and her grandmother Maria (Adriana Barraza). Apparently, Rambo has kept them safe from an abusive absentee father, helped them through the death of Gabrielle’s mother, and softened enough to become a semi-normal member of the family. I say “apparently” because almost all of this is told to us with very little shown. Almost all of the strides Rambo has made since returning stateside, including dealing with his extreme PTSD, are glossed over as almost an afterthought and blithely suppressed with pills. And, to no one’s surprise, when Gabrielle defies her family by crossing the border to find her estranged father and falls into the clutches a Mexican sex-trafficking cartel, well, you know what happens. Rambo goes after her, and a shit-ton of people die.
But here’s the rub: Rambo isn’t the war machine reluctantly set loose for some semblance of righteousness, as he’s been since the beginning. Instead, now he’s strictly out for revenge. And he’s Rambo, so he gets it. But that’s not in and of itself particularly interesting. The film seems to have been edited down to its most barren “essentials,” basically getting all that stupid talky-talk out of the way as fast as possible so that we can end with the 30-minute bloodbath that will hopefully make up for the 60-minute narrative vacuum before it. Entire characters are completely wasted, such as award-winner Paz Vega as a journalist whose sister was also taken by the gang. Instead of presenting an ideological clash with Rambo and his methods, she’s reduced to a couple of insipid scenes serving no purpose other than to get him to the next one. And then, POOF! She disappears.
Speaking of, most of the scenes are painfully pedestrian, both in composition and in performance. Director Adrian Grünberg has only one other feature to his name (2012’s Mel Gibson actioner Get the Gringo) and seems to have made his bones as a second-unit director. This would explain why some of the action beats are kinetic, exciting, and have a visceral edge, but why the intimate scenes are completely devoid of nuance and look like they were shot by a high school AV club. I can’t blame the actors; while they aren’t the greatest, they seem to be diligently doing what they’re told, which isn’t much. The rare scenes of emotional depth are sucked dry by simplistic staging and a lack of ability to mine the narrative layers necessary make the audience care about what’s happening. The villains are fairly cardboard—but then that’s pretty standard for the franchise—and the thematic device of commenting on the horrors the poor enslaved women endure is left by the wayside, much like their characters, and they, not unlike Gabrielle herself, serve little purpose other than as fodder for the violent delights of the villains and an excuse for Rambo to rain down holy hell.
In addition, Rambo himself seems to have forgotten what allowed him to survive all these years. In Rambo: First Blood Part II (a film lampooned for its action-first approach), Rambo says, “I’ve always believed that the mind is the best weapon.” Now, that same man runs headlong across the border and, well, gets his ass handed to him immediately . . . and without a fight. Even when it comes time for Rambo to defend his home turf, we shift from ripping off Taken to ripping off Home Alone, as our “hero” basically just eviscerates enemies in the most vicious way possible within his underground labyrinth of death (which, fortunately, the bad guys gave him ample time to build, very courteous). This is a far cry from the man of stealth who did whatever he had to, but didn’t necessarily glean some sort of sadistic pleasure from it.
One could argue that the circumstances this time round with his surrogate daughter and Rambo’s understandable rage have sort of blinded him, and that’s a fair point. But it brings up the biggest problem here, which is the massive missed opportunity to really delve into the repercussions of the kind of violent life the character has led. To start, with Rambo back home, it would have been a wonderful opportunity to address the VA’s treatment of PTSD. How would a man like Rambo take to seeking help and/or seeing others going through the same thing? How far gone is he after all this time and what he’s been through? And, how might Rambo have been able to relate to young Gabrielle after the trauma she’d experienced? Could they have helped each other? And I’m not even touching the various political stances. Yet, all that aside, I think the real miss here is in the ending. Rambo brutally, even inhumanly, exacts his vengeance and . . . that’s about it. Might it not have been better for the man who has lived a life of war and violence to pay the ultimate price by dying on the sword he’s lived by, especially for someone he truly loves? Instead, Stallone has already publically stated he’d play the character again, so it’s no spoiler to know that we don’t get a definite finale here.
I don’t know if that’s good or bad. After the dud of Rocky V, I was sure that character might be best left alone, but they came back with a brilliant sequel and later a fantastic refresh with the Creed series. Could Rambo right the ship next time out? I’m not sure, but what I know is that if it has any hope of doing so, it needs to go back to what makes the character work, lose the purely gratuitous eviscerations (no matter how much I might cheer them in the moment), and explore the man behind the icon. Until then, if all you’re looking for is good old-fashioned blood and guts, save your money by renting this one at home and skipping to the end—or the inevitable extended cut that will likely add in the rest of the story. But if you believe the mind is the best weapon, then go back through the franchise catalogue and remember a time when you could have the best of both worlds.