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The Golden Compass

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[***Contains Spoilers***]

Let me just say how sick I am of the Monday morning quarterbacks who give bad reviews with smart-ass titles like “The Golden Compass Gets Hopelessly Lost” to 114-minute films based on 500-page books lamenting that the characters are wooden, the plot twists confusing, and–horror of horrors–they changed the ending. Huh? That’s like a passenger on a 747 making an emergency landing on a tiny airstrip in a windstorm telling the pilot it was too bumpy.

Next time you’re personally responsible for the politics of carrying the ball on a $180 million dollar project made with investors’ money, which had been lambasted in the media as ‘atheist propaganda’ for months, which had to try to satisfy not only nit-picking critics, but the fragile religious sensitivities of the U.S. holiday audience and the more sophisticated tastes of foreign viewers, which booked a raft of major star talent, and which included well over 100 minutes of top-quality CGI effects, then you can tell me what was wrong with the film.

Talk about a balancing act. After all that difficulty, it’s amazing the film was watchable at all. Maybe someday when a film like The Golden Compass can be made on computers for under $10 million, we will get the kind of lengthy, uncompromising, and faithful treatment the story deserved. But in the meantime, I’m very happy that New Line Cinema took such a gamble, and I hope it pays off for them. I’m fairly certain that the next two films will more than make up for the shortcomings of the first one. They will never satisfy the die-hard fans of Pullman’s books of course, but we can hope they end up better films than Compass. Whatever they are, I hope they get made, and the studio gains the courage to pull fewer punches next time.

Having not read the books myself, I have to rely on hearsay. Supposedly there was a logical (but tragic) ending to the first film which might have soured holiday audiences and thereby hurt the film’s word of mouth. With $180 million on the line, it’s easy to see why New Line cut it. Overall, the decision should help the trilogy’s fate–by making it more likely we will see the second and third installments. Especially since the first part of The Subtle Knife has already been produced.

The concern of Bill Donohue and his cronies was well justified. The sinister Magisterium was spot on cue with their holier-than-thou anti-science attitudes and ruthless strategies (which included kidnapping, attempted murder, and the soul-murder of children). Anyone who didn’t recognize the Magisterium as the Catholic Church and their splendidly rendered “See” as the Vatican would have to have been sleeping.

We are treated to a perfectly vicious Nicole Kidman as a henchwoman for the Magisterium (who it turns out is also the one overseeing the kidnapping) who plays a couple of Mommie Dearest type scenes with Dakota Blue Fanning. What this is all about is no less than sinister human medical experiments, which are being carried out on kidnapped children in the far north. In the dastardly laboratory, kids souls (which take the form of animal daemons) are literally stripped from them, leaving them as shells, barely alive. This is justified blithely by Kidman in one scene where she describes how the desires and the curiosity of maturing daemons lead to all sorts of ruin. So the solution of the Magisterium is to simply kill the daemon and thereby cut out all adult drives and desires and leave people in a childlike state. Sounds like what fundamentalists of nearly all religions have nearly always wanted to do to nearly all teenagers.

This plotline is so focused and devastating to the religious agenda, it’s mind-boggling. I don’t know how much good a fantasy film can do in the short term, but in the long term, I think children who watch this film will be far more on guard for arguments from authority, and people who try to take away their free will and “save them from themselves.” Also, I hope, as Bill Donohue fears, that more kids will take up Pullman’s books, which I’m told have far more detailed and incisive treatments of the pitfalls of both religious authority and faith.

That Donohue fell right into Pullman’s trap is brilliant. If the Catholic church didn’t know the film was so close to home, it should have completely ignored it. If anyone brought up the subject, their best move would have been to say “clearly this is fiction, doesn’t represent the Catholic Church, so we don’t have anything to say about it.” But Donohue’s protestations have done little but to ensure that everyone now knows the Magisterium is really the Catholic Church.

I have total admiration for the work of the special effects units. The production design and art direction straddled the line between gothic and steampunk. It was really cool to see a society that was not quite modern, but not quite old-fashioned. For example, 3D spinning gyroscopes provided a power source for both cars and airships. Unlike many fantasy epics, this world had working technology, so everything in the film didn’t rely on magic spells (a pet peeve of mine about the Harry Potter series). The film’s eponymous alethiometer was a notable exception, and brought in an unwelcome element of mysticism. Still, since the alethiometer both symbolized and relied on a person’s own free will, it was far better than subservience to the soul-stealing and authority-based dogma of the Magisterium.

Taken as simply a film, without the burden of Pullman’s weighty source book, The Golden Compass was successful. The battle scenes were well done (especially when you consider some of them had dozens of human actors and hundreds of CGI elements), and I took particular note of the sound design which made me feel the action was happening practically in my seat, but never became overwhelming. Like most modern CGI epics, every nuance of sound was manufactured, making it even more impressive.

Altogether, 4 out of 5 stars.

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Comments (13 comments)

Jeff / December 11th, 2007, 8:51 pm / #1

I never read the book(s) but I plan to see the movie. However, slate.com gave me a review from the perspective of a hard-core fan of the book series, who even named his daughter after a main character, as well as from a woman who had never read the book. http://www.slate.com/id/2179387/fr/flyout

Both agreed that the movie was very weak. Impressive visually, but very weak plot-wise. The Pullman fan was heartbroken by the Hollywood blandification machine, while the woman who never read the book was confused and bored. Obviously, since I haven’t seen it yet, I’m only regurgitating the views of others. But facts are facts, and it seems undeniable that the anti-religion aspects of the book were really watered down.

IMO, the huge budget ruined the prospects for a good movie. If it was done on a much smaller budget, then it could have been authentic and successful without having to appeal to a huge mainstream audience…but that’s a catch 22…strong message for fewer viewers or weaker message for more viewers. However, whenever you try to please too many people, it just doesn’t work.

Cristy / December 12th, 2007, 12:25 am / #2

i personally have not read the books, but I did watch the movie. I thought the movie seemed to be just at the edge of being something brilliant, but didn’t quite reach it and turned out being really dull at some parts. Maybe I’ll give the books a try, it sounds like they might be better. However, it wasn’t an awful movie, it just wasn’t great.

Louis / December 12th, 2007, 4:36 am / #3

I also saw the movie and was disappointed. I haven’t read the books, so that wasn’t a factor.

I may be a tad saturated with the fantasy genre… I could swear this film ripped off several sound bites from LotR. Parts stood out like this:

For example, 3D spinning gyroscopes provided a power source for both cars and airships. Unlike many fantasy epics, this world had working technology

Unfortunately even more of the film looked like it was trying to be Lord of the Golden Compass Ring. The source material was strong enough to be distinguished from other fantasy offerings, and the fact it didn’t do enough of that was the biggest factor in not loving this film; that and the erratic weaving of the story. Most of the audience was doing the ‘when is this going to end’ chair squirm, myself included… something I normally want to put my boot into the back of someones head for. ;)

It’s unfortunate because the controversy that it is generating is likely going to garner a wider audience than would normally go see the film. That and having Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig on the marquee, (Nicole Kidman was excellent.) I hope people are forgiving, because I would very much like to see the sequels produced.

Perhaps the can get Matthew Vaughn to do the next one… I really enjoyed ‘Stardust.’

Tom Rees / December 12th, 2007, 7:17 am / #4

I’ve read the first two books, but not yet seen the film. It’s done rather better outside the US - but then the whole market is down this season in the US.

There are a couple of things about the books that make them hard to adapt into a blockbuster: the characters are not black and white, like they are in Narnia & LOTR. And the whole daemon thing, which is so integral to the story, must be spectacularly hard to adapt to film.

I would imagine the second book would be even harder, because there’s less in the way of fighting.

By the way, I do not think the books are pro-atheist at all. In fact, they are filled with positive religious metaphors (the dualist concept of a soul for starters). But what they are is anti-authoritarian, which is why the catholics and duller religious believers are so much against them.

Mojoey / December 12th, 2007, 1:41 pm / #5

I saw this wonderful movie over the weekend with my wife and 12 year old son. We loved it. It had some internal problems, but nothing the killed it. My son loved it. When I asked him what it was about he said something like it was about a smart girl saving kids from bad people. Of course, he already calls himself an atheist, so maybe the nefarious subplot was wasted on him.

As a result of the watching the movie, my family has decided to start reading the books as a family Christmas present. We are readers at heart and know that there is much more to the story than the film could show.

To those who protested… you wasted your time, my familiy did not listen.

Chris / December 15th, 2007, 3:25 pm / #6

to anyone who hasent read the books and was disappointed by the movie: READ THE BOOKS!!! They are some of the most engaging, fun and emotionally stimulating books in the way of sci-fi/fantasy that ive ever read. Though many people seem to want to compare to LOTR or other fantasies, these books completely stand on there own. Especially in the latter two books when you are whisked away into Pullmans other worlds and parallel universes. He presents an originality that i dare say is superior to Tolken, and far so to Lewis. Pullman is almost, it seems, a sci-fi author who just happened to write a fantasy. Haha, all you SF lovers know what i mean and know the difference!

As far as the movie itself goes, I can’t say i wasn’t disappointed. It lacked the fire of the books. And though the actors made up for the film’s shortcomings, the ending left eyes dry and expectations unfulfilled. There were some great aspects of the movie though, and even a couple times where i found myself gratefully appreciating a scene’s faithfulness to the book. All in all, go see it. it would really be a shame if the next two didnt get made. Oooo and to any of you who have read the books or at least The Golden Compass, I heard the DVD will have tons of extra footage including, gasp! the first three chapters of subtle knife!!!

pharaohcious / December 30th, 2008, 10:30 am / #7

If the movie portrayed the church as evil, doesn't that fit the belief of some of us that Satan knows the word inside out and tries hard to use it against us? Some, obviously, don't know that. I mean if some people out there are reading that much into it. I think you can apply these ideas to most sci-fi movies and books if you really like to "read" into it.

Yasmin / January 27th, 2010, 11:39 pm / #8

I watch the movie and I was a little disappointed. Cause the first book is very interesting it keeps you wanting to know more and more about the story. The movie was to short and kinda boring. But I hope they come out with the other movies too… The books are AWESOME anyone that enjoys to read should definitely thy to read THE GOLDEN COMPASS…………..

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