The Golden Tease
Does the movie make you want to read the book? It's a fair question to ask when gauging The Golden Compass, a film sourced from literature. Posing it as a starting point, however, implies one hasn't been convinced of the movie's purely cinematic merits. This glossy screen version of book one in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy will probably leave devotees dissatisfied but not without hope, and neophytes modestly intrigued but far from captivated.
As for its alleged anti-Christianity, considered on its own, the fantasy is too generic to qualify as an attack on religious faith per se, let alone any particular tradition or any denomination's institutional apparatus. Teeming with talk of animal daemons, parallel worlds, dust and authoritarianism, the underlying concept seems dense yet slightly arbitrary, borrowing willy-nilly from The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and strands of futuristic science fiction.
The Golden Compass doesn't reach out and grab you, partly because you're rushing to keep up with all the exposition about a world in which each human being has a soul embodied in an animal companion. Offending believers is not something I'd advocate, yet a little overt religion bashing might help put all the information in some relatable context and further the macro storyline. Although what makes it on screen does have theological import, nothing takes root, so no one in the audience will morph into a heathen and few will be driven to read the books.
The filmmakers' only obvious transgression -- one that constitutes artistic heresy -- is denying the audience a proper ending. The Golden Compass concludes in a way that left me feeling teased and cheated, as if the goal was to set up future installments, though not with a genuine cliffhanger. The experience is like opening a set of Russian nesting dolls and only finding smaller dolls inside. Rather than a peasant, Nicole Kidman's beautiful visage is painted on the outside. Looking like a lethal flapper from the 1920s, she makes a ravishing villainess and an appropriate symbol for the project. Tantalizing on the surface, it's not clear how much substance lies underneath.
For now, her Mrs. Coulter is the glamorous adversary of plucky heroine Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphaned tomboy who lives with her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) at Jordan College. Asriel's research has brought the ire of the ruling Magisterium. When he embarks on an expedition that may threaten their grip on power, Lyra is given the Golden Compass, a truth-telling device that lets her "glimpse things as they are." Coulter, a Magisterium agent, arrives and whisks Lyra away, unaware that according to a prophecy the little girl is the chosen one who will decide a forthcoming cosmic battle over free will.
Meanwhile, children are being snatched by the Magisterium and subjected to an experiment that wouldn't be out of place on an episode of Star Trek. Loyal Lyra flees Coulter and joins forces with gypsies, a drunken polar bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) and a cowboy aeronaut (Sam Elliott) to find the kidnapped children in the icy North. Unfortunately, the action peaks with a polar bear smack down and an anti-climactic skirmish with soldiers loyal to the Magisterium. Then we're told to stay tuned for part two.
Although the animals, whether polar bears or daemon souls, are seamlessly incorporated into the live action, the overall staging is passable. A cold metallic sheen deflects attention from some poor editing and murky sequences. The production design pits a progressive New Age aesthetic -- think GAP cold-weather gear and Ikea furniture -- against the Magisterium's fascist look: Stalinist architecture and Greco-Nazi tunics.
There's plenty of on-screen evidence that the creative team had to do a lot of scrambling, all of which heightens the cognitive dissonance and makes you wonder whether this compass is pointing anywhere special. Lyra is a clever, feisty heroine, but it remains to be seen whether she can lead this project into any sort of promised land.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "PG-13" for sequences of fantasy violence.)