A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE GOLDEN COMPASS jj
˝ 

2007, PG-13, 116 mins.

Marisa Coulter: Nicole Kidman / Lyra Dakota: Blue Richards / Lord Asriel: Daniel Craig / Lee Scoresby: Sam Elliott / Stelmaria: Kristin Scott Thomas / Serafina: Eva Green / First High Councilor: Christopher Lee / Farder Coram: Tom Courtenay / Magisterial Emissary: Derek Jacobi / Fra Pavel: Simon McBurney


With the voices of:


Iorek Byrnison: Ian McKellen / Ragnar Sturlusson: Ian McShane / Pantalaimon: Freddie Highmore / Hester: Kathy Bates

Written and directed by Chris Weitz / Based on the novel NORTHERN LIGHTS by Philip Pullman.

It appears - as of late - that no December movie going season would be complete without a big and sprawling new epic fantasy gracing the silver screen.

Some of the films that have appeared during this holiday period have been marginally entertaining (like 2005's THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA), some were exceptionally mounted, critically lauded, but monumentally over-praised (see THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy) and some were unrelentingly derivative and dull (see last year’s mournfully dreadful ERAGON).

Now comes THE GOLDEN COMPASS, which in itself is an adaptation of the respected - and highly controversial - novel, NORTHERN LIGHTS, penned by Phillip Pullman.  The film is the first entry in a proposed film trilogy (Pullman’s NORTHERN LIGHTS is the beginning of a three part DARK MATERIALS series) which led many industry insiders to see this highly prized literary work to be the next "big" fantasy hit.  It is no wonder, seeing as the distributor, New Line Cinema, also released The incredibly successful LORD OF THE RINGS.  The early promos for THE GOLDEN COMPASS rather blatantly plugged Tolkein’s film universe in order to advertise the coming of the adaptation of Pullman’s book: it showed that famous ring morphing into the compass.  Slick advertising? Yes.  More than a bit shameless?  You betcha.

The story behind the film is arguably juicier than the film itself.  THE GOLDEN COMPASS was written and directed by Chris Weitz, which just may be the most audacious and ambitious transition for a writer/director since George Lucas jumped from AMERICAN GRAFFITI to make the first STAR WARS film.  If Weitz’s name seems familiar than it’s because he is the same Weitz that co-wrote most of the AMERICAN PIE films and went on to direct one of the best films of 2002, ABOUT A BOY.  The fact that he went from making teen sex comedies to coming-of-age British dramadies to large scale fantasies is kind of inspiring.  Perhaps no one was more overwhelmed than Weitz himself, who previously resigned from making the film after signing on, citing intimidation of adapting such a lavish, visual effects laden production.

Nevertheless, Weitz seems to handle himself fine here, as THE GOLDEN COMPASS is an exquisitely mounted and oftentimes beautifully rendered fantasy.  The film certainly does not attain the aesthetic heights of the RINGS trilogy, nor does it even achieve an on-par status with THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA.  Yet, perhaps the one thing that is easy to admire in the film - even beyond NARNIA and LOTR - is that it's a fantasy about ideas and themes first and visual splendor and eye candy second.  Yes, the film does have bold and imaginative sights that inspire a legitimate sense of awe and wonder (Weitz’s creative approach, by his own admission, was to hybrid the look of STAR WARS and BARRY LYNDON, which is evident numerous times), but its essence lies with intriguing concepts within the universe portrayed.  It makes you think about what it’s saying while you drink in all of the gorgeous visuals, a rare commodity in the fantasy genre.

Not only that, but the film provides a wonderful new find in 12-year-old Dakota Blue Richards, whom has the daunting task of holding up this film (and maybe a trilogy) on her young shoulders.  In COMPASS she plays Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan that lives in an alternate universe (it’s looks a lot like Earth - England to be exact - but with fantastical additions and alterations) and is raised by eminent scholars at a prestigious university.

What’s interesting about the universe Lyra and her kind live in is how everyone has a spirit that actually appears in material form and constantly accompanies their human partner wherever they go.  These spirits are referred to as daemons (oddly pronounced "demons") and usually are the form of any earth creature.  As a child a daemon can alter itself into any creature, but once you get older they settle into one form.  If I could chose a daemon than it would definitely be a tiger.  Just try to screw with me while I have that beast accompanying me wherever I go!

Lyra’s only living relative is the very powerful Lord Asriel (the decent, but very underused, Daniel Craig) who entrusts with her a very special device called an Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, which gives its equally special user the ability to "see" the truth, which makes it really, really important to gage a another person’s B.S..  The compass itself is the apparent last one in existence, and is the Hitchcockian MacGuffin of sorts that just about everyone wants.

One organization in particular wants it destroyed.  They are the Magisterium, which is presented as a dictatorial and oppressive neo-religious dictatorship that tells people what to believe, how to believe, and what to do in their daily lives.  Clearly, the existence of the Golden Compass would prove to be devastating to the Magisterium, which would allow people to see right through their suppressive authority and would further lead to people developing free will and individualized thinking, which is really, really bad news for any dictatorship.

It seems that the evil organization has been kidnapping little children and taking them to a secret base.  What they do to them is ghoulish: they put them into a chamber with their daemons and viscously exterminate the daemons, making the children mindless and willful servants to the Magisterium.  One of Lyra’s own friends is kidnapped, which makes her all-the-more determined to get to the bottom of things.  At the same time Lyra is befriended by the beautiful and somewhat enigmatic Mrs. Coulter (played with an icy resolve and understated cruelty by Nicole Kidman) who offers her a trip to the north on a grand airship that looks like a zeppelin.  Little Lyra accompanies Coulter, but when she finds out - via the Compass - that she is a very evil woman, she escapes from her and engages on a quest to find her long lost friend.

Lyra then hooks up with an extraordinary assortment of characters, some human, some not.  She meets a aging Han Solo-esque veteran pilot (an aeronaut) named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott, playing this kind of role effortlessly) who assists her with finding an armored bear.  She then hooks up with the film's second most memorable character in Iorek Byrnison, a polar bear warrior (in CGI form and voiced with Gandolfian glee and bravado by Ian McKellan), who has been banished from his kind.  Despite a very awkward first meeting, Lyra decides to assist the bear in his battle to the death with the bear king up North, all which culminates with them discovering the whereabouts of her friend while learning the vile truth of what’s happening to the children.

Before I go any further some discussion of the film’s controversy needs to be mentioned, as the film and its source book have be sharply criticized.  In the book’s case it contained some very obvious themes such as the rejection of religion and the abuse of power in a fictionalized Catholic church (which is represented by the Magisterium).  Whereas the book’s Magisterium was a thinly disguised Catholic Church, Weitz decided to sharply dilute that inference and instead make the organization a Big Brother style group that represents all dogmatic organizations.  Greatly fearing that the film would seriously polarize religious groups, Weitz deadened the anti-religious themes, which can be respected seeing as no one would want to put in $180 million into a film that chastises religion and could inhibit ticket buyers.

I think that all this amounts to is a faux-controversy.  Ironically, the film has come under attack by secular groups for not maintaining the book's vision, whereas Catholic groups slammed the book for promoting atheism (which begs the question: could anyone criticize an agnostic fantasy?).  I think that anyone can see allusions if they want to (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA has Christian overtones, but no more so than THE MATRIX or STAR WARS films), but what’s kind of unsavory is the notion that making a fantasy from an atheist perspective is somehow morally wrong.   What’s really creepy is the fact that Christian groups demean the source material as unholy and something to be avoided, which is eerily the same kind of smear campaign that the Magisterium employs. 

Interestingly, I sincerely don’t think that the anti-religion themes are as smothered out as many have lead you to be believed.  The Magisterium still comes across as a pseudo-religious organization gone horribly afoul, and the film certainly maintains the theme that you should not trust this organization or any other that suppresses "truth."  What the Christian critics fail to understand is that this is a work that is anti-religion, not anti-faith.  I think that we all live in a world where there is some very pointed questioning of the practices of many mass organized religions.  The film - and books - simply embody the notion of free will: In short, believe what you want to believe, just don’t believe everything that you are told to at face value. 

These thought provoking themes are the best part of COMPASS, followed closely behind the performance of Dakota Blue Richards, who carries so much spunk, youthful vitality, and sass in her portrayal of Lyra.  She also manages to infuse in the character a undercurrent of darkness and legitimate mistrust alongside being a very charismatic and determined figure.  She is wonderfully engaging and easily sustains the film’s human interest.

The film’s sights and set pieces are also other noteworthy aspects.  I loved the look of an alternate England that looks like a cross between a Victorian Age city and the vast metropolis skylines of the alien worlds from the STAR WARS prequels.  The computer generated daemons are also flawlessly integrated with the live action, and Iorek’s fierce and violent battle with the Bear King is a rousing and virtuoso bit of action spectacle.  A late scene in the film, which features an all-out battle that involves flying witches, pirate like Gypsies, Iorek, and Magisterium soldiers, is equally magnificent.

Yet, for all the ways that THE GOLDEN COMPASS was able to intrigue me, it nevertheless felt unfulfilling and underdeveloped.  Thankfully, the film spares viewers of the endurance test running times of the LOTR films, but THE GOLDEN COMPASS spends too much time on exposition: There are just too many instances where characters engage in perfunctory exchanges that try to explain everything, which grinds the narrative flow to a halt.  Adults will find themselves checking their watches, whereas children will most likely fidget endlessly in their seats.

Oddly, the film also feels rushed, especially with many of its respective characters.  Lyra and Iorek are engaging creations, but several other roles are only marginally developed.  Kidman is both luminous and cold-hearted as Coulter, but she has such little screen time that she never really becomes a threatening and scary antagonist that the film needs.  Daniel Craig’s Uncle Asriel - a potentially important character - is barely an entity in the film.  Then there is the character of the witch warrior Serafina Pekkala (the exquisitely beautiful Eva Green) who barely is anything more than an afterthought in the film.  Oh, and if you squint for second, you will miss Christopher Lee, in a part so minimal that you'd think that he would appear again in the film, only to vanish without a trace.

I know...I know...you're saying that THE GOLDEN COMPASS is just the first part of a trilogy of films, but my job as a critic is to report what I see here.  Clearly, the film is structured as part one of a three act film series (the ending certainly occurs abruptly, leaving open the transition to the second film, if not leaving me wondering where the third act of this film went).  I think that the best trilogies had entries that worked well independently of their own and as part of a larger story.  THE GOLDEN COMPASS feels like one big set up that contains a long beginning and no middle or end.  It definitely wants me to see the second entry of the trilogy, but with COMPASS’ meager box office this past weekend (it made a paltry $26 million, a box office dud when considering the film’s near $200 million budget), chances of a sequel and the completion of the trilogy seems highly unlikely.

When all is said and done - and after much thought - I regretfully can’t give THE GOLDEN COMPASS a passing grade, and I do so with a bit of remorse.  The film has involving themes (free will versus religious oppression, and one that is not all that well hidden), a terrific child performance at its core (a bad child actor would have buried the whole enterprise), and a lush visual palette that is both awesome and unique.  Yet, the film’s narrative is vastly uneven, characters are only sketchily developed, and its pacing seems like it wants to dash to the end credits in order to force us to see the sequel which may or may not happen.  Instead of standing confidently as a singular piece of lively escapism, THE GOLDEN COMPASS feels a bit too half-baked and unfinished.  Perhaps if I ever get the chance to view THE DARK MATERIALS series as a film trilogy, then maybe this film as part of a whole will bare more weight.  Right now, and on its own, THE GOLDEN COMPASS is more of a tease than it is a fulfilling film experience.

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