Home > Reviews > THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE – Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim

THE DARK CRYSTAL: AGE OF RESISTANCE – Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 1982 the Jim Henson Company released what was, at the time, the most ambitious puppet-centric movie ever made: The Dark Crystal. Despite being a rich fantasy film of evil monsters and gallant heroes, visually stunning and wondrously creative, it was not an immediate success upon its release, with many people considering it much too scary for its young target audience. However, in the intervening 37 years it has become a beloved cult classic, a cultural touchstone for many 1980s children who were left enchanted and terrified in equal measure. Fans have been clamoring for a sequel for decades, but have been forced to be content with various comic books and novels to quench their thirst for additional tales from this universe – until now. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a 10-episode series produced by Netflix which acts as a prequel to the original movie, and with its increased budget actually surpasses the original in terms of its larger scope, richer detailing, brilliant storytelling, and visual majesty.

The series is set many years before the events of the movie, on the world called Thra. The world is ruled by a race of corrupt beings called Skeksis, half-reptile half-bird, who inhabit an enormous castle, within which is an enormous crystal that acts as a conduit between the ‘energy’ deep within Thra, and the creatures who live on its surface. In addition to the Skeksis, a race of elf-like creatures called Gelflings also live on Thra; they are split into numerous clans with different physical attributes and skills, but all are subservient to the Skeksis. However, unknown to the Gelflings, the Skeksis are dying, and have been secretly harnessing the power of the crystal in order to maintain the illusion of their powerful immortality. The Skeksis’ experiments on the crystal has caused an infection – the ‘darkening’ – to spread across Thra, throwing nature out of balance, and threatening all life. Furthermore, during one of these experiments, the Skeksis accidentally discover a new aspect to the crystal’s power: it has the ability to extract and liquefy the ‘essence’ of life from other living things, which the Skeksis can then consume to prolong their lives. This discovery sets in motion a chain of events which will pit the Skeksis against the Gelflings in a battle for the future of the world.

Everything about The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is absolutely wonderful. Director Louis Leterrier has shot the film like an epic movie, with sweeping vistas, intense action sequences, and moments of powerful emotion and intimacy. The world-building by concept artist Brian Froud is astonishing; every living thing, from the largest creature to the tiniest plant, has been lovingly crafted from the ground up, and everything has a place and purpose within the ecosystem of Thra. The concepts of the different Skeksis, and the different Gelfling clans, are amazingly detailed, with vivid aspects of religion and mythology worked into their various backstories. The writing takes fantasy tropes from many sources and re-imagines them in this fantastical world, making them both familiar but also dazzlingly new. The puppet artistry is spellbinding, and imbued with such emotion, that you quickly forget you are essentially watching Muppets; these are three-dimensional characters with hearts and souls. And the voice cast – which combines A-list TV and movie stars (Taron Egerton, Jason Isaacs, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg, Caitriona Balfe, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Hader, Alicia Vikander, Sigourney Weaver, many others) with several Game of Thrones veterans (Lena Headey, Nathalie Emmanuel, Natalie Dormer) – is nothing less than spectacular.

The final key element in the success of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is the score, by British composers Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim. The original film’s score was written by Trevor Jones, who provided an enormous full-orchestral fantasy epic with an iconic main theme, but director Leterrier’s approach was less traditional. He wanted “something that was almost tribal … to hear the strings being plucked and the skin wrapped over the drum … but, at the same time, beautiful melodies”. Pemberton and Sim provided that and more. Daniel Pemberton is, of course, one of the rising stars of global film music, having written an array of wildly eclectic music for projects as different from each other as The Man from UNCLE, Steve Jobs, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Molly’s Game, All the Money in the World, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Samuel Sim is less well known internationally, but has still written a great deal of outstanding music for British television over the past decade, including shows like Emma, Home Fires, and The Halcyon. This will likely be most people’s introduction to his music.

In the album’s liner notes, Pemberton says: “I wanted the music to be as magical as Thra itself – organic, imperfect, strange, mystical, otherworldly and wonderful. I wanted to create new sounds that felt like they came from the world itself, as well as using thematic large scale orchestral elements to bring an emotion to the journey of the characters. I wanted music and sounds that would fill you with wonder, but also terrify you. It was very important to me that all the sounds felt like they could only be from Thra itself – no grand pianos or overtly electronic elements. Every sound had to feel organic and visceral, from the dark detuned glissando cello sounds made for the Skeksis, to the upbeat flutes from the Podling’s bar. We created noises out of wine glasses, metal chains, wooden drums, metal sculptures on a snow covered mountain, and old creaky medieval instruments to try and make a sonic world as unique as the visual one.”

Sim similarly says ““The Dark Crystal is set in a unique world of magic, adventure, threat, and danger. The music had to capture that majestic wonder, as well as its dark, sinister underbelly. Although nearly all the sounds in the score come from an acoustic or ‘real’ source, a huge amount of time was spent twisting, morphing and detuning them to create something completely new and surprising. For example, there are places in the score where flutes and clarinets were pitched down 5 octaves to sound like tubas and bass trombones. Nickel-harps and cellos were put through guitar amps, and at one point we even took the sound of chirping crickets and slowed it down so much that it created weird otherworldly pads and drones.”

The resulting score is, as Pemberton intended, simply magical. There are a few flashes of Trevor Jones’s original Dark Crystal theme – at 2:25 in “Story of The Dark Crystal,” at the very beginning and very end of “The Dark Crystal: The Age of Hope,” and as the opening notes of “The Scientist Engineers” – but, beyond that, everything is new. In terms of the score’s structure, Pemberton and Sim tended to avoid having dozens of leitmotivic melodies, which could have been overwhelming considering the sheer number of main characters and concepts that would have needed to be addressed individually had they gone down that route. Instead, the composers concentrated on a smaller set of core ideas related to the most important characters and story elements, most of which are introduced in the opening cue, “The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance”.

There are at least four or five ideas which emerge here (depending on how you count them). The first is the ‘Resistance Theme,’ a medieval-sounding nine-note motif that plays throughout the work, with its first iteration appearing at the very beginning of the track on what sounds like a dulcimer backed by ancient strings and antique woodwinds. The second is a motif associated with the concept of Gelfling ‘Dreamfasting,’ a more elegant and ethereal idea which first appears at 0:19 on strings, but then develops to encompass a shimmering, magical-sounding string figure at the 1:14 mark. The third idea is a more heroic melody that first appears at 1:30 and which, as the score develops, tends to become closely associated with the Gelfling Rian and his quest to uncover the Skeksis duplicity. At 2:22 we hear the first appearance of what Pemberton calls the ‘Skeksis Glissando,’ a slithery and insidious descending motif performed on de-tuned cellos, which acts as a recurring calling card for the species as a whole. Then, at 2:32, we hear the first strains of what eventually becomes Aughra’s Theme, an idyllic and pastoral woodwind motif for the ancient and cantankerous soothsayer who often acts as the voice of Thra itself.

These central ideas are the cornerstone of the score, but what’s brilliant about these themes is how versatile they are. They are the sinew that binds everything together, and they play in so many different guises, and elicit so many different emotions, sometimes overtly, sometimes subliminally. The ‘Resistance Theme’ is probably the one that receives the most variations, coming across as elegant and mysterious in “Another World, Another Time,” with a tribal vibe featuring dancing woodwinds and clattering percussion in “Rian and Mira Dreamfast,” with brooding darkness in the dramatic and revelatory “Essence Draining,” and with a warlike intensity in “Together We Fight,” which has a sonic similarity to Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores when Pemberton brings in the energetic percussion and stepwise ascending brass scales. I’m also very fond of the statement in “What Lies at the Dream’s End,” where the theme is surrounded by different brass chords that give it a Hans Zimmer-esque feel, as well as the massive action setting of the theme at the end of the otherwise intense and intimidating “Attack of the Arathim” . This concept of resistance to the Skeksis reign gradually builds throughout the show, as more and more Gelfling clans begin to realize the truth about their overlords, until it dominates the conclusion in cues like the fantastic “Battle for Thra”.

The ‘Skeksis Glissando’ is also everywhere throughout the score, alluding to their overarching omnipresence and their influence across all of Thra. Scenes specifically taking place within the Skeksis castle obviously feature it prominently – the imposing and threatening “Story of The Dark Crystal,” the chilling “The Crystal Chamber” where the glissando combines with high strings and electronic tones, the maniacal “Essence Draining,” and especially in the “Peeper Beetle Ceremony” where the glissando is turned into an imposing ritual march filled with drums, gongs, and other metallic percussion. There is a subtle choral variation on the glissando later in the score in the quite impressionistic “The Aureval and the Throne Room,” as well as what appears to be a character-specific variation in “Tricky Chamberlain” which uses weirdly off-kilter metallic percussion textures and an ascending, rather than descending, slide which acts as a recurring marker for the most treacherous Skeksis of all.

As I mentioned, the ‘Hero Theme’ is usually associated with the actions of Rian and the other members of the Gelfling company who come together to stop the Skeksis; it appears prominently in the closing moments of both “Rian and Mira Dreamfast” and “Together We Fight,” with the latter having an especially noble sweep. This cue is actually very clever because it represents the first time that Pemberton brings both the Resistance Theme and the Hero Theme together contrapuntally, musically linking both concepts together in the personification of Rian, and making him the hero of the resistance. This idea continues through cues like the slow and thoughtful “The Journey,” and “Remember Your Oath,” before climaxing in the beautiful and sentimental “The Three Brothers Rise,” which features some striking ascending woodwind ideas overlapping with the main Hero Theme melody.

Finally, ‘Aughra’s Theme’ represents the beating heart of Thra, a pastoral, pleasant theme for medieval, ancient sounding woodwinds and dulcimers. As heard in cues like “Aughra Awakes” and “Aughra Returns,” her theme has a naturalistic touch, and it links in with several other motifs that crop up as the score develops, all of which appear to deal with the concept of Thra itself and its links between Aughra and all the living things on the planet. Cues like “Deet Enters Thra,” “Deet in the Woods,” “Tales from the Sanctuary Tree,” and “Song of Thra” seem to be cousins of Aughra’s music, as they all feature similar orchestrations, but without the overarching Aughra melody. Pemberton uses magical-sounding pizzicato strings, delicate woodwinds, and calm and peaceful electronic tones to create a wondrous feeling; “Deet Enters Thra” also has an especially aspirational tone, with ascending scales which seem to mirror Deet’s physical ascent from her underworld home in the caverns of Grot to the surface of the planet.

However, this is not all the score has to offer, as there are also several other themes and motifs which develop independently of the opening cue’s main quartet, in the body of the score itself. Samuel Sim’s primary contribution to the score is the theme for the Vapran Princesses – Brea, Seladon, and Tavra – the daughters of the ruling All-Maudra of the Gelflings, and whose sororal relationships often take the story into interesting directions. Their music is regal and magical, often like a dance, and is usually performed by beautiful flutes and harps. There are notable performances of the Vapran Princesses theme in cues like “Brea and the Library,” the energetic and playful “Sisters,” the more mournful and introspective “All-Maudra,” and the desperately sad “Our Sister Is Gone”.

Possibly the most beautiful theme in the score is what I am calling the Gelfling Funeral Lament, a gorgeous melody which often plays during emotional moments of loss and mourning for these deep-feeling creatures. The Funeral Lament has a warm, earthy tone, almost like a hymn, often carried by string and woodwinds, and receives prominent performances in both “Her Light Faded” and “Thra is Calling.” However, the most noteworthy statement comes during “Speak For the Dead,” which underscores a camp-fire sequence where several Gelflings sing songs and play music in remembrance of some of their fallen friends. The music is elegant and expressive, and although it is underpinned with slightly funereal percussion, it builds to a warm and expansive finale. In the scene in question this piece actually has Gelfling-language lyrics, and is sung on-screen by all the main characters while Kylan, a song-telling Gelfling of the Spriton clan, accompanies them on a small recorder-like instrument. It’s just magical, and very moving.

The Podlings, a race of mischievous Hobbit-like creatures with their own language and a great love of good food and alcoholic drinks, are characterized by playful, dance-like tribal music in cues like “Dzenpo!” and “Outside Podling Wayhouse,” which feature creative instrumental combinations including nickel-harpa, crumhorns, bansuri flutes, and sazes. One of the Podlings, named Hup, wants to be a paladin warrior, and accompanies Deet on her quest to find Rian, but what he lacks in resources (his only weapon is a wooden spoon that he wields like a sword) he more than makes up for in bravery and kindness. Hup doesn’t appear to have his own musical theme, sadly, but he lights up the screen whenever he is on it nevertheless.

Skek-Mal the Hunter, the most violent and vicious of the Skeksis, is at one point tasked with tracking down and killing Rian, and he gets his own personal motif that appears in “The Hunter and The Storm”. It’s an angry, aggressive thing, filled with rattling percussion, howling horns, and guttural electronic textures. The polar opposite of this is the motif for the Mystics which is peaceful and calm, sentimental, and a little mysterious. There is a very clever statement of the Mystic motif in “The Mystics,” which combines the motif with a very slow and deliberate statement of the Resistance Theme on dulcimers, as well as a subtle variation on the Skeksis Glissando which – when performed contrapuntally – clearly illustrates the Skeksis-Mystic link at the heart of the story.

The finale of the score – and the series – takes place in the Gelfling stronghold of Stone-in-the-Wood, where Rian has finally convinced all the different Gelfling clans that the Skeksis are their enemy, and that they should all join him to end their reign of terror. At least five of the score’s main themes – the Resistance theme, the Skeksis glissando, the Dreamfasting motif, Rian’s Heroic theme, and Aughra’s theme – feature prominently in this superb sequence of cues, as the whole thing builds to its dramatic climax. “The Blue Flames Part II” is very clever indeed; the Dreamfasting motif underpins the entire cue as Rian speaks to all the Gelfling clan leaders by dreamfasting with the blue flames inside Stone-in-the-Wood’s sword furnace; as he does so, the Heroic Theme, the Resistance Theme, and the Skeksis Glissando all play against each other in three-way counterpoint, a brilliant bit of thematic scoring which touches on all aspects of what’s going on dramatically at that point in time without losing any musical coherence.

Aughra’s theme introduces “Preparation for Battle” before it becomes darker and more intense, with rasping brass and woodwind ideas. “The Skeksis Arrive” to the strains of their glissando, which is threatening and imposing, and is filled with rhythmic percussion hits and ominous synth textures. They face off against the forces of “The Seven Clans,” who make a stand accompanied by the heroic, noble combination of the Dreamfasting Motif and the Resistance Theme together. Eventually, the “Battle for Thra” erupts into a mass of throbbing, whirling strings and pulsating percussion, while a fantastic warlike version of the Resistance Theme heralds the fight. Those magnificent brass triplets are a thing to behold, especially in the moments when the Gelfling finally get the upper hand over the Skeksis – thanks to Deet’s sacrifice – and send them back to the castle.

Of course, as fans of the movie know, this is not the end of the Dark Crystal story, and the darkness of the penultimate cue “The Scientist Engineers” reveals the creation of the Skeksis secret weapon – the Garthim. Eventually “The Dark Crystal: End Credits” ends things on a downbeat note, with an anguished sounding arrangement of the Resistance Theme underpinned by statements of and variants on both the Skeksis Glissando and the Dreamfasting Motif.

The score for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, like the series itself, is an absolute masterpiece. Trevor Jones’s score for the original movie remains iconic, but what Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim have done here is create an immersive musical world that is totally unique. With its tapestry of inter-weaving themes, distinct representations of the different species, intelligent allusions to folk music, creative instrumentation, and excellent dramatic application of everything, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is everything you could want from a contemporary fantasy score. It allows the human audience to connect with its clearly non-human protagonists by creating emotional connections that feel universal. When the Gelflings mourn their own in the “Speak For the Dead” sequence, you feel their pain. When the Skeksis craft their insidious plots to drain the crystal of its power for their own ends, the ever-present sliding glissando makes you feel their evil. It’s exactly what good film music should do. Some will complain that there is not enough of Trevor Jones’s theme in the score, but I personally applaud the idea to make this score a distinct musical experience, while maintaining subtle sonic links to the movie that can be expanded on in future series. And I certainly hope there are future series – I want to return to this world of Thra again and again and again, and I want Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim to be right there with me.

Buy the The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance soundtrack from theMovie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance (3:42)
  • Another World, Another Time (3:26)
  • Story of The Dark Crystal (3:11)
  • Rian and Mira Dreamfast (4:15)
  • Aughra Awakes (2:04)
  • The Crystal Chamber (3:16)
  • Essence Draining (2:46)
  • Into the Catacombs (2:09)
  • Deet Enters Thra (2:07)
  • Dzenpo! (2:56)
  • Her Light Faded (2:37)
  • What Lies at the Dream’s End (3:18)
  • Together We Fight (4:49)
  • The Blue Flames Part I (3:52)
  • Thra is Calling (1:41)
  • Outcast (1:49)
  • The Journey (2:05)
  • The Hunter and The Storm (2:34)
  • Dreamspace (2:40)
  • Speak For the Dead (2:45)
  • Aughra Returns/Peeper Beetle Ceremony (2:47)
  • The Dark Crystal: The Age of Hope (5:35)
  • An Old Story (2:46)
  • Brea and the Library (1:33)
  • Remember Your Oath (1:24)
  • The Darkening (2:16)
  • Puppet Show (5:54)
  • Deet in the Woods (2:10)
  • The Three Brothers Rise (1:04)
  • Sisters (2:12)
  • Outside Podling Wayhouse (1:46)
  • The Mystics (4:58)
  • Tales from the Sanctuary Tree (2:16)
  • The Blue Flames Part II (2:50)
  • Song of Thra (4:17)
  • All-Maudra (3:09)
  • Our Sister Is Gone (2:28)
  • A Few Traitors (3:56)
  • The Aureval and the Throne Room (2:51)
  • Preparation for Battle (3:05)
  • Attack of the Arathim (5:30)
  • The Seven Clans (2:50)
  • A New Crown (4:55)
  • Tricky Chamberlain (2:21)
  • The Skeksis Arrive (3:20)
  • Battle for Thra (2:37)
  • The Scientist Engineers (2:12)
  • The Dark Crystal: End Credits (2:23)

Running Time: 143 minutes 25 seconds

Varese Sarabande (2019)

Music composed by Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim. Conducted by Daniel Pemberton. Orchestrations by Danny Ryan, Dani Howard and Edward Farmer. Original Dark Crystal theme by Trevor Jones. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Edited by Ben Smithers. Album produced by Daniel Pemberton and Samuel Sim.

  1. MG
    October 1, 2019 at 1:00 pm

    Fantastic review. I was blown away by the series. I need to listen to this again. Do you happen to know the chronological order of the tracks between the two albums? I’m sure listening in that fashion will help the thematic development shine a bit more…

  2. October 16, 2019 at 5:13 am

    I’d been noting thoughts on the soundtrack since it released. Actually, I listened through both soundtracks about two times before I got to watch the first episode of the show. The first song they release didn’t do much for me until I got to hear the entire album and listen how all those themes worked and played throughout the soundtrack… early on when I got to “Rian and Mira Dreamfast” I was completely sold that this was a perfect soundtrack that was very fitting for Thra.

    Anyways, I run youtube.com/TheDarkCrystalConjunction and have done three videos on the original movie soundtrack and wanted to do a couple on the new one. I think your review, intermingled with scenes and the music (much like I did when I did my review of the Dark Crystal sountrack) could make two videos or so. Anyways, would it be ok if I use and quoted your material for future videos?

    BTW, great and throughout review, I’m asking cause the work you did in putting it together is better and more thoughtful than anything I could have done. Thanks! FOR THRA!!!

  1. October 17, 2019 at 7:01 am

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