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A not so Golden Compass

December 7, 2007
[This review of The Golden Compass comes from one of our behind the scenes Salt + Light staff, David LeRoss]
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“This is a vision of a parallel world. A world with no Magisterium, no authority…”
“That is heresy.”
“That is the truth.”
- The Golden Compass, movie
The film The Golden Compass arrives in theatres across North America today, as the latest fantasy flick to hit the silver screens at Christmastime. It’s a blockbuster film chock full of special effects, fantastic landscapes and odd characters that help an unlikely hero on her quest to defeat an evil organization plotting world domination. Along the way she is given an object of immense value that the evil organization wants and she must keep from its clutches. The plot is standard fare; it’s easily comparable to the first Harry Potter book, the first Star Wars movie, the first Lord of the Rings novel… it’s no surprise that the series has been successful. If the formula ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The story follows Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a cloistered young girl growing up in a universe parallel to our own. Lyra is accompanied at all times by her daemon, Pan, who is the animal manifestation of her soul. After a surprise visit from her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), and a mysterious woman, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), Lyra is whisked away to the Northern Lands to aid the devious Mrs. Coulter. Before she leaves, Lyra is secretly given an aletheiometer, a compass-type instrument that always tells the truth. When Lyra discovers that Mrs Coulter works for the Magisterium and is kidnapping children to do experiments on them, she escapes and is taken in by the Gyptians, a nomadic band who have lost many of their children to the kidnappers. Lyra travels north to save her friends, aided by an armored bear, an aging cowboy and a witch. She learns that the experiments conducted by the Magisterium have to do with a mysterious, shimmering Dust that connects her world to the parallel worlds, and also connects her to her daemon. The Magisterium’s experiments aim at severing the connection between children and their daemons as a means to mind control.
If the plot seems weighty, that’s because it is. The movie opens promisingly enough, with happy Lyra and Mrs Coulter beginning their journey north. Around Lyra’s escape, though, the movie derails and tries to add subplot on subplot, all supposed to make sense by the time the second and third films come around. It all becomes rather confusing, and the fellow I saw the film with eventually turned to me and asked “What are they doing? Why are they doing this again?” And part of the trouble is that director Chris Weisz (About A Boy) doesn’t even try to explain all of his exposition surrounding Dust, the focal point of the series; nor does he try wrapping up the film: he ends literally in mid-flight, chopping off the last chapter of the book and the cliffhanger twist that really kept me interested in the series. With none of the grace of the final scene of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, which similarly ended with our heroes on their journey, this film feels unfinished; it doesn’t help that we’ll have to wait a few years to see the second chapter in the film trilogy - if it’s made at all.
Ultimately, the film fails because of its insistence on setting the stage for the next two movies. The filmmakers breathe life into the fantasy world, with impressive CG visuals, and the film asks interesting questions about the nature of the world, but somewhere the story is left by the wayside. Questions about Dust are left unanswered; uninteresting characters drift in and out; and the daemons, the only original idea in the movie, soon become a tiresome gimmick. Add in an annoying soundtrack full of swelling music that never really leaves mediocrity, and you have a thoroughly fruitless film: pretty images but ultimately vacuous.
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