9 December 2007 | WriterDave
Ask the Dust
An evil empire called the Magestirium attempts total control of the population by hiding the secrets or parallel universes and a unifying particle called Dust in Chris Weitz's clunky but entertaining adaptation of Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass".
"Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" have never apologized about their overt paganism. Likewise, "The Chronicles of Narnia" have never been accused of being subtle as a Christian allegory. These series, in both literary and film forms, have been monster hits due to their unapologetic natures that speak truths to their ardent fan bases. British writer Philip Pullman's darkly subversive anti-religious fantasy books have also been hugely successful, more so overseas than here in the States. Stripped of the books' overt atheistic messages, "The Golden Compass" takes a reverse psychology approach in its film treatment and oddly positions itself as an apology for Pullman's work. The result is a tepid affair that joins a long line of fantasy films about children discovering they are the chosen ones destined to save the world. At least this film is refreshing in its stance on girl-power as represented in the main character Lyra, played wonderfully by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who apparently is a graduate of the Dakota Fanning school of acting. Whether or not this tactic to strip the film of its soul (much like the Magesiterium strips children of their daemons) will make the film broadly appealing enough to warrant a franchise has yet to be determined.
The film comes across as more anti-authoritarianism in general than specifically anti-religion. In the 21st century the line between authoritarian politics and organized religion has become increasingly blurred. Since we currently live in a world where a born-again Christian sits in the White House and wages wars in Muslim nations, it's easy to see why folks from both sides of the aisle, ardent fans of the books and conservative Christians alike, have been worked up into a mindless and silly frenzy over even just a watered-down film version of the first of Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, with one side saying it's not wickedly subversive enough, and the other side saying it's still subversively wicked.
However, viewing the film out of the context of the books upon which it is based and the ridiculous faux-controversy surrounding them, it makes the grade as a big-budget fantasy flick. Yes, there are too many characters to keep track of, and the film has rushed feel to it as if it was edited at the last minute, but it still makes for an interesting trip. Kids will be wowed by the elaborate set designs and CGI effects, which are far superior to the ones in the similarly clunky but still entertaining "Chronicles of Narnia" and culminate in an awesome battle sequence involving armored polar bears--take that Global Warming! Adults will get a kick out the nimble ensemble cast, who all seem to be having a great deal of fun with the self-seriousness of the whole production and are headlined by Nicole Kidman--botoxed, full-lipped and deliciously frosty in a creepy villain role that suits her perfectly.
Possibly the strangest aspect of the film comes as an accidental subtext resulting from its apologetic nature. With its depiction of mystical-minded do-gooders rallying against the totalitarian Magestirium, "The Golden Compass" almost comes across as a period piece anti-Communist allegory rallying for the fall of the Soviet Union. It makes the film feel charmingly dated. There's also the disturbing subtext of child abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church as seen in the Magestirium's cruel experiments with kidnapped children, which makes the film feel charmingly grotesque.
Bottom Line: Any movie that depicts Nicole Kidman walking around with a monkey and preaches the importance of free will, making bonds, sticking together, and fighting for your friends and loved ones can't be all that bad. Despite some of the themes of the books being exorcised and arbitrarily presented by a poorly chosen Chris Weitz (a director known for his comedies "American Pie" and "About a Boy"), "The Golden Compass" still has enough interesting elements and old-fashioned razzle dazzle presented with new age CGI to make it entertaining. At its worst, it presents two hours of dark fantasy-land eye candy. At its best, it encourages adults and children alike to use their free will to do something far better with their two hours, like read.