Sunday, December 9, 2007

Movie Review: The Golden Compass


The Golden Compass, written and directed by Chris Weitz. Starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Dakota Blue Richards. New Line Cinema, 2007. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AII--Adults and Adolescents.

Read other reviews here.

When you fight over something with which you're unfamiliar, you run the risk of fighting over nothing. Such is the case with The Golden Compass, which recently sent Catholic bloggers into a tizzy. But the movie doesn't deserve the attention. It barely deserves this review. I've read the novel, yet even I couldn't figure out what was going on in this film.

Here's my best attempt at a summary: in an alternate universe much like ours but with more CGI, people's souls manifest as talking animal companions called daemons. Ruling over this otherworld is an oppressive hierarchy known as the Magisterium, which is guilty of the unforgivable sin of (horrors!) telling people what to do. In other words, it's a sort of government with vaguely religious overtones. That's all we learn about it, except that it's supposed to be evil.

Living for no known reason at Oxford University is a young ragamuffin named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore). Lyra's "uncle," Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has come to the college to speak about his research in the far north, where he has been studying a mysterious particle known as "dust." Don't ask what dust is; you'll certainly never learn the answer from this film, and if the movie trilogy follows the books closely, you won't get a satisfactory answer from the sequels, either. One way or the other, agents of the Magisterium consider study of dust heretical (yet they study it themselves, so go figure) and want to get Asriel out of the way. Though they could presumably arrest him since the Magisterium more-or-less owns the planet, they decide it would be more prudent to--cackle, cackle!--poison his wine! But that fails, of course, and Asriel escapes their clutches.

The slippery Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) shows up and decides to take Lyra on a trip up north. It then turns out that Coulter is head of the Oblation Board, which has been kidnapping children for no clear reason. For an equally unclear reason, Lyra joins up with a group of seagoing Gyptians, and for no reason at all, they head north to some pristine sets made of fiberglass rocks and fake snow.

Meanwhile, Asriel has also headed north, apparently without guides or supplies, and gets captured by the Magisterium. Fortunately, he escapes their clutches and...wait, didn't we do this already?

Anyway, to cut this short, Lyra teams up with a talking armored polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) and a Texan dirigible pilot (Sam Elliot) and heads, um, north. She finds the Magisterium's evil lab where they are--cackle, cackle!--cutting away children's daemons to keep them from growing into adults. (Why? Who knows?) There's a big fight at the end involving some witches, some Gyptians, and some Magisterium agents, and then the movie really falls apart.

As I've said before, The His Dark Materials Trilogy is a big disappointment. Though the series starts strong with a beautifully realized alternate world in The Golden Compass, it swiftly goes downhill as Pullman stops worldbuilding and starts preaching. The novels promise, among other things, that young Lyra will commit a new Original Sin, that Lord Asriel will gather the fallen angels to wage a new war in Heaven, and that Will (who appears in book 2, The Subtle Knife) will kill God with a magic knife that can cut anything. The anticlimactic fulfillment of each of these promises is a crushing disappointment. His Dark Materials begins by promising to be one of the greatest fantasy series ever written, but it ends as an incoherent and inartistic mess.

But the movie is a different story. The first novel is quite strong, but this first film is quite weak, and that does not bode well for the sequels, which will be based on inferior source material.

This movie features good actors and good sets. The CGI never overwhelms the imagery. The daemons look good, though the armored bears look fake. The music by Alexandre Desplat is atrocious, but the directing by Chris Weitz is competent. Dakota Blue Richards, in particular, acts with skill beyond her years and proves a perfect choice for the bold, charming, and tomboyish heroine Lyra; as a result of her performance, Lyra is more three-dimensional here than she is in the novels, where she remains consistently, bemusingly, and frustratingly uninterested in the larger happenings around her. All the materials for a good film are present and accounted for, but the movie falls flat anyway, mostly because of the script.

Everything in this movie is rushed. Lyra moves from Oxford to Mrs. Coulter's apartment to a Gyptian ship to the frozen north with the speed of a bouncing superball. Characters, especially villains, are thrown at us with little introduction. The Magisterium is a one-dimensional conglomerate of moustache-twirling villains with no raison d'ĂȘtre. An evil armored bear who usurps a kingdom is equally motiveless, and the subplot involving him has no relevance to the larger story.

As promised, Chris Weitz has removed the most obvious religious elements, and as I predicted, this was an unwise move. In the novel, the villains are members of a Church that has been gradually recovering from the chaos caused by Pope John Calvin, who moved the papacy to Geneva and dissolved it. The Oblation Board under Mrs. Coulter, working more-or-less independently, believes it can destroy Original Sin by cutting away children's daemons before they reach adulthood, a horrific process that either kills the children subjected to it or turns them into mindless zombies. Lord Asriel is a hero almost as evil as the villains, willing to murder children in order to open a gateway into an alternate universe where he can begin his monomaniacal quest to find God and slay him. It is a grand, imaginative beginning for a fantasy epic.

Absolutely none of this comes across in the movie. The Magisterium "tells people what to do," and the heroes are people who "don't like to be told what to do." Instead of a bold act of blasphemy, the movie is more like a wimpy plea for anarchy.

As for what you're all wondering about, yes, the Magisterium is still clearly a religious organization. Its members wear clerical outfits and its buildings sometimes feature Christian icons. Because of the reduction of the religious themes, the Church the movie attacks is even more of a strawman than the Church Pullman attacks. In the novels, the Church is at least concerned with sin, something the Church is concerned with in real life, though why the Church would think it could eliminate sin by preventing children from reaching adulthood is something only Philip Pullman knows. In the movie, the Church wants to eliminate free will, but according to actual Church teaching, free will is something sacred, a dogma, something the Church has fiercely defended. The idea that the Church would be interested in a medical operation to remove free will is simply silly.

When Philip Pullman took aim at Christianity, he missed, but at least his gun was pointed in the general direction. Weitz doesn't even know what he's supposed to be aiming at. Gutted of its central themes, this film has no point. Stripped of Pullman's lavish worldbuilding, it's not even good eyecandy. It belongs in the same round file we have put the other fantasy films that have appeared in the wake of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Golden Compass:

Myth Level: Medium (a half-hearted attempt at an imaginative epic)

Quality: Medium-Low (yet another high-budget film destroyed by its own script)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-Low (pointless anticlerical elements)
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