Review: The Golden Compass

Betting that our love for science fiction and fantasy movies is not yet satiated, Hollywood has been digging deeper into its pockets to purchase related film rights. Gone are movies on the A list like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Harry Potter series. While fans of The Golden Compass and the two other books that make up the His Dark Materials trilogy written by Philip Pullman would probably protest that these books should be on the A list too, clearly they are not, as evidenced by their weaker book sales.

Nonetheless, these books have a substantial following, particularly among thoughtful adolescents. Perhaps in part because reaching this target market is crucial to Hollywood’s balance sheets, New Line Cinema took on controversy by sponsoring the production of the first book in the series, The Golden Compass. Making this movie is somewhat risky because its author is an atheist and freethinker. His unorthodox ideas are unlikely to play well in Peoria. Such adult content might be appropriate if the target audience were not impressionable adolescents. Consequently, to market the movie it became important to tone down this aspect of the book so it would give Christians minimal offense.

I have not read the book so I only know through press reports that the movie was toned down for mass consumption. I have heard that Pullman’s atheism leeches more distinctly into the later books. In the movie of The Golden Compass, this tension is framed more as one between a perceived benevolent world government called The Magisterium (which apparently is actually a church in the book) and various resistant but persecuted groups consisting of clans, gyptians, witches and armored polar bears.

Any scholar of Roman Catholicism though will not be fooled. In Latin, magisterium refers the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Consequently, I am left to infer that Pullman was alluding to the Roman Catholic Church as it might be in the 21st century had the Protestant Reformation never occurred. In The Golden Compass, the Magisterium seems rather benign and secular but its goal is to remove all doubt and thus keep its leaders in control of the world. Where is this world? Why it is right here, sort of. It is our world in an alternate universe where things have played out a bit differently. In this reality, many people have pets that talk and who, in fact, are living embodiments of conjoined spirits. They are way cooler than Harry Potter’s pet owl Hedwig.

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is a spunky girl who has the unfortunate predisposition to orient by her own internal compass. She lives under custodial care at Oxford University, one of the few places on this alternate Earth where some measure of freethinking is still permitted. Not all is well with the children of this world. The rebellious kind mysteriously disappear, taken by Gobblers, who send them to what appears to be a benign reeducation camp above the Arctic Circle. Like in the movie Logan’s Run, once you reach a certain level of enlightenment you are never seen again. In fact, you are murdered by the state.

Also above the Arctic Circle is a mysterious entity called dust, which, it is rumored, provides a portal into other alternate universes. The existence of dust is a closely guarded secret about which Lyra happens to learn. Lyra also inherits a mysterious one of its kind golden compass, which has the unusual property of letting her discern the truth. It is not a good thing to learn about dust because the Gobblers are likely to come after you. One does not expect a Gobbler to appear in the shapely form of Nichole Kidman, who plays Marisa Colter, a member of the Magisterium who comes to visit Oxford. There she quickly takes Lyra under her wing and promises to show her the mysterious Arctic. Thus begins Lyra’s perilous adventure. Fortunately for freethinkers everywhere, Lyra is a unusually spunky and perceptive girl who also has unknown friends who help set her free from Miss Colter’s clutches. With their help, Lyra embarks on her quest to rescue children taken by the Gobblers from their desolate Arctic prison. She will need considerable help for this uphill task, including an armored bear named Iorek voiced by Sir Ian McKellan.

The movie is well realized and reasonably engaging. Its computer-generated imagery is so seamless it is now impossible to distinguish between animated polar bears and the real thing. There is none of the jerkiness in Iorek that we saw in Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. One of the prime criteria for directing movies these days must be the ability to meld live action and CGI. Director Chris Weitz manages to pull it off very well.

Is the movie satisfying? While satisfaction is likely in the eye of the beholder, those who have read the book (such as my wife and daughter) will likely rank the movie as more satisfying than those like me coming at the movie cold. While generally well acted and directed this was one movie that could have been twenty minutes longer than its running length. I needed a bit more time to time to feel vested in this alternate universe. Instead, we quickly move from plot point to plot point with no chance to catch our breaths. At times, the director seems overly anxious to show us the next coolly rendered bit of CGI. Instead, with so much eye candy and plot it becomes hard to absorb both at the same time.

The film is preachy in a secular sort of way. By the end of the movie, it is abundantly clear that this movie is really about authority vs. the right of unfettered thought and that authority is really bad and freethinking is really good. Lyra may be a spunky young girl but she has a missionary zeal to spread the gospel of freethinking. Sensing that there are other parallel universes out there ruled by other evil Magisteriums, she makes it her crusade to use dust to liberate human thought across the universe. Well, it’s nice to set big goals. If this movie is financially successful enough, we will find out in the next two movies whether she succeeds.

If your are simply wondering whether the movie is worth your time and money the answer is probably yes, unless you are one of these types so wrapped up in your own faith that any allusion to free thought is offensive. It is a well-done movie, but unless the follow on movies are much better, you will not be elevating it to the same level as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I rate The Golden Compass 3.1 on my 4.0 scale.

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