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Review of “The Golden Compass” (2007) PG-13 113min

December 9th, 2007 by Maxim · 2 Comments · 10,582 Views


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the-golden-compass-poster-with-armored-bear.jpgA major disappointment.

The script by Chris Weitz (”About a Boy“) is based on first story of Philip Pullman’s 1995 bestselling (in UK) trilogy novel, His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass.

The plot: The story is set in an alternative world where people’s souls manifest themselves as animals (a.k.a. “daemons”), a 12-year old orphan girl Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is at the center of it. A mysterious organization known as Gobblers kidnapped Lyra’s friend Roger (Ben Walker), and she sets out to try to rescue him, but winds up on an epic quest to save not only her world, but ours as well. Her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is a scientist, a scholar at Jordan College, Oxford, England. He believes he discovered a gate into other dimensions and solicits the powerful Magisterium to subsidise an expedition to the Magnetic North to verify his theory. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott and Ian McShane headline an all-star cast.

The good: the visuals are absolutely beautiful – a lot of eye-candy. Acting was great. Marisa Coulter (did I say Coulter?) played by Nicole Kidman is a villain. Kidman basically played a Snow Queen: gentle and cunning, perfect skin, blue eyes… Daniel Craig didn’t do much but he looked good. 80% of all acting is done by the little girl, Dakota Blue Richards. She had done a terrific job. The only problem I had with her is that she wasn’t too attractive for a protagonist, but that’s ok – all 12-year olds look awkward.

The bad: um, it’s going to be a long list. First of all, the plot is pretty complicated, so since this movie is supposed to be a fantasy movie for kids (as implied by PG-13 rating), I was disappointed to find out that even most adults had difficulties following the story. Second, this movie ends in the most unexpected place and is clearly a setup for a sequel. Third, this movie was called controversial for being anti-religious, but after watching this movie I was disappointed with the way it was done. Here’s why.

At the center of the story is a all-powerful Magisterium. It is ruling the world in that dimension by subjecting everyone to their religious dogmas. Everyone belonging to the Magisterium are wearing 19th century European clothes. The architecture of the Magisterium building is Gothic, with a lot of similarities with St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican – merged with a tall structure that looks a lot like Empire State Building in New York. All of this points to Catholic church. (The rest of the buildings might have been Oxford, England, but I am not sure). Over the centuries the history of the church has been filled with pretty horrible things done in the name of religion, such as witch burning, inquisition, genocide on American continent and more, but they’ve also tried as heretics and burned quite a few scientists on the stake (Giordano Bruno for example; Galileo Galilei was convicted as placed under house arrest for the rest of his life), and in this movie this is exactly what threatens Lyra’s father. The religious leadership in this movie conspires to keep and extend their power, and their plans go as far as brainwashing population – all in the best interest of public. Since Lyra’s father is about to discover inter-dimensional travel (no, it doesn’t involve the flux capacitor), the Magisterium may get hold of this invention to spread their influence in other dimensions as well. So our protagonist and her new friends try to prevent the Magisterium from ever finding out about it. See the problem? Lyra’s friends try to liberate everyone by trying to stop progress and hide the information about an important invention – also for the better good. So they think that replacing tyranny with information blackout is one thing that is going to set them free: replace a theocracy with Soviet-style dictatorship.

Lastly, I am tired of fantasy movies with perfect Anglo-Saxon accent and same visuals over and over. The market is saturated with them like in the previous years when some 3D-animated movies had done well the theatres were flooded with rubbish likes of Madagascar until people began to shriek at the words “3D-animated”.

Lyra’s daemon was “unstable”, shifting from a ferret to a mouse, a fox, a cat, a moth. Only adults have daemons that are permanent (stable). When two characters threaten each other, their daemons lead the fight. The problem in the movie is that too much attention was spent on getting the special effect looking its best, but I actually think that this effect was underused: it could have been such a great tool for showing the true nature of characters – daemons are their souls after all – but then, of course, there would be no need for the Golden Compass (a.k.a. alethiometer)

The last drop of disappointment were the evil soldiers whose daemons were wolves: they were dressed as Cossacks and spoke Russian! Reminded me of Cold-war propaganda saying “USSR is populated with wolves, not people”. Grow up! Two lamest moments in the movie is when the bear said in big voice “What business have you with Iorik Stupidsen?” (or whatever his name was) and when an air rade of witches with bows and arrows flew in to slaughter the cossacks/evil Russians.

This movie has a lot of eye-candy and some nice performances and effects, but the plot is lousy to may be too hard to follow for kids. It will look good in HD – it looked awesome on big screen. I probably will not watch the sequels in the theatre and wait for HD DVD releases. The acting and effects are better then in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, but story was much worse then in Harry Potter. The visuals are worthy of LOTR.

p.s. I did not read the book.

p.p.s. In the movie pirates-look-alikes were called Gyptians. Their life-style and especially costumes has a remote resemblance of one of seafaring Gypsies.

** 80th Academy Awards Update (Feb 24, 2008) **

The Golden Compass has won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (Michael L. Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris, Trevor Wood).

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Tags: Action · Adventure · Drama · Fantasy · Movies · UK · USA

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Maxim // Dec 10, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Thanks for the great informative comment.
    I agree “unstable” is not the good way to describe it. It’s dynamic as the shape of the daemon sets permanently only for adults. It’s a nice alegory for a child growing up.
    The fact that Lyra was trying to save the children did not escape me, but I was so distracted by effects, shape-shifting and bears talking in big voice…

  • 2 WaruiKoohii // Dec 10, 2007 at 12:31 am

    Reply  |  Quote

    Erm, you seem to have missed the point of the movie. Granted, reading the book helps.

    Lyra and her friends (Gyptians, mostly) don’t set up to prevent the Magisterium from finding out about Lord Asriel’s (Lyra’s “uncle”) invention (mind you, the viewer doesn’t even find out about the invention until the very end of The Golden Compass, which wasn’t shown in this movie! Even then, the point is not the invention, so don’t think about it too much), rather, the whole point of the first book/movie is to save the children from the Gobblers, and also for Lyra to deliver the alethiometer to Lord Asriel. At no point does Lyra intend to prevent the Magisterium from finding out about Asriel’s intentions, partly because the Magisterium already knows, and they had known for quite some time! In fact, the Magisterium had sent troops to arrest Lord Asriel, but they didn’t arrive in time. But that’s not in this movie.

    As for daemons, you really need to read the book to understand them, as the movie didn’t go into detail enough. Lyra’s daemon is “unstable” yes, but that is a poor way to describe it. All children’s daemons can shift shape at will, up until the child enters puberty. This is because, (spoiler!) your daemon is your soul. And the daemon’s final shape shows what kind of person you are. For instance, a dog daemon indicates that the person submits to orders very easily, whereas a wolf daemon is appropriate for soldiers.

    So, read the book, it explains quite a bit. But also, pay more attention during the movie, as it is described well enough that you shouldn’t come away as misinformed as you did.

  • 3 Maxim // Dec 10, 2007 at 1:05 am

    Reply  |  Quote

    Thanks for the great informative comment.
    I agree “unstable” is not the good way to describe it. It’s dynamic as the shape of the daemon sets permanently only for adults. It’s a nice alegory for a child growing up.
    The fact that Lyra was trying to save the children did not escape me, but I was so distracted by effects, shape-shifting and bears talking in big voice…
    As far reading the book goes, the experience of the movie completely changes if you know the book well. For example, I know “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” and “Harry Potter” pretty well, so when I watch the movie I have certain expectations from story and characters. Many of the people who never read “Hitchhikers” thought the plot was messy. Likewise, not knowing the plot of “Golden Compass” helps me measure the quality of the director’s and editor’s storytelling skills. In this movie, after the bear fight and especially after witches started to come down the sky to slaughter the Cossacks, I did not care for story any more: I was checking my watch.

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