The Golden Compass
Director : Chris Weitz
Screenplay : Chris Weitz (based on the novel Northern Lights by Philip Pullman)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Marisa Coulter), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Ben Walker (Roger), Freddie Highmore (voice of Pantalaimon), Ian McKellen (voice of Iorek Byrnison), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Christopher Lee (First High Councilor)
In the end, the question of whether The Golden Compass, the film adaptation of the first book in British author Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, is an atheist manifesto masquerading as children's fantasy is irrelevant. The much-remarked-upon subversive anti-religious nature of the books must have been diluted to the point of being practically nonexistent because it makes no impact in the film. I have read various arguments both for and against this adaptive strategy, with some saying that the excising of the book's religious-philosophical material effectively castrates the story and renders it pointless and others saying that it improves the narrative by keeping Pullman's high-handed soapbox from getting in the way.
Not having read the books, I can't stand one side or the other, but I can say that I found the film to be a colossal bore--a meandering, shapeless adventure that takes you from one place to another with no real sense of urgency or excitement. Granted, a budget of $180 million will provide some fantastic imagery, and The Golden Compass certainly has its moments (including hoards of talking animals and a climactic display of armored polar bear smackdown), but simply throwing money at the screen is no guarantee of a good movie. In a clear attempt to emulate their previous multi-billion-dollar success with adapting The Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Line Cinema has clearly stumbled into murky territory in adapting a controversial book that hasn't been around long enough to develop the historical import of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved saga.
The story takes place in one of many alternate, parallel universes, this one strikingly like our own except that all the décor seems to have come from Europe in the 1920s, the technology is right out of Jules Verne, and people walk side by side with their souls in animal form called “daemons.” The heroine is a plucky 12-year-old girl (is there another kind?) named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards). Lyra is an orphan who has been raised on the grounds of Jordan College by her scientist-adventurer uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Lord Asriel is determined to prove that alternate worlds exist, as does a magical substance called Dust. Opposing him is the Magisterium, a ruling governmental body that is clearly a stand-in for the Catholic Church both visually (they dress like priests) and rhetorically (they keep complaining of “heresy”).
Lyra is given an altheiometer, the “golden compass” of the title, which can be used by anyone to discern the truth. It is the last of its kind, and the Magisterium would love to destroy it, so they send in the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a glamorous woman who offers to take Lyra with her on an adventure in the North. Once Lyra discovers Mrs. Coulter's real intentions, she sets off on her own, eventually becoming involved in unraveling a malicious scheme to kidnap children and surgically separate them from their daemons and a power struggle among the warrior-bears that populate the North Pole. At all times she is accompanied by Pantalaimon (voiced by Freddie Highmore), her daemon who also acts as her guide and conscience. Like all children's daemons, Pan constantly changes shapes, usually from ferret to bird to cat (once Lyra become an adult, her daemon will “settle” into one form).
Behind the camera, what The Golden Compass lacks most is a visionary director. The film was adapted and directed by Chris Weitz, who has proved an able filmmaker with comedies like American Pie (1999) and About a Boy (2002), but is clearly in over his head. Whatever the wonders of Pullman's books may be, they have not found their way to the screen in anything other than expensive CGI literalization. For all the goes on throughout the movie, there is little charm and almost no humor, nor is there ever any sense of dramatic urgency or real affection for the characters. Most of them are introduced and then quickly shuffled off-stage, ostensibly so they can reappear in later installments. Nicole Kidman certainly cuts a striking figure when she's on-screen, though, conveying with great, clipped intensity that most striking childhood fear of adults: their instability. Mrs. Coulter morphs from motherly to villainous in fluid movements, making her a truly chilling villain. Unfortunately, she is the only character to leave any real impression.
While it is undeniably necessary in the first part of a trilogy to introduce a lot of characters, plots, and ideas that have no resolution, there is still a sense that everything is too rushed and graceless, as if genuine indulgence in the wonders of imagination had to be jettisoned in favor of narrative efficiency. While Christian watchdog groups are certainly justified in being wary of a film based on a book series that the author has giddily described in the press as being about “killing God,” there is little to fear here because the philosophical backbone of the books has been watered down into a simplistic celebration of “free will.” The perceived need to remove the books' anti-religious sentiments is obvious when it comes to the bottom line, although it makes one wonder why New Line decided to spend so much time and money adapting a book that had to be gutted to make it marketable.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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