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?
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.
Update: “His Dark Materials” based on the same Phillip Pullman trilogy of books, is now an HBO series going into its third season. –Sean Prophet, August 2022