PSA: The Golden Compass (2007), or This Movie Isn’t Even That Atheistic! What The Fuck?!

18 08 2009

Have you ever shot yourself in the foot before? I haven’t. Not literally, anyway. I assume it’d be a horrible and intensely humbling experience that would leave you with massive amounts of self-confidence issues. Every time someone says, “Dude, why are you limpin’?”, the memory of that day pops back into your head like a lightning bolt with a bum foot, and whenever you go into the specialty sock store and the clerk gives you that icy “What the fuck happened to you?” look, you’d slowly and silently collapse into the fetal position. Luckily, that has never actually happened to me, but I can only imagine. Now, when it comes to figuratively shooting myself in the foot, I do it all the time; possibly on a daily basis. Minor things here and there, nothing too spectacular. I’m nowhere near the outrageous ignominy of New Line Cinema, a company that has continuously shot itself in the foot to the tune of millions of dollars. They’ve taken extraordinary risks throughout the years, and while some have paid off big time (The Lord of the Rings), others have been simply catastrophic. Today’s feature, The Golden Compass, has often been blamed as the source of New Line’s death as an independent studio and is one of the most controversial family movies ever made. Why is it so controversial? Well, a bunch of people (i.e. Catholics) read the book (i.e. read reviews on the book), digested it the wrong way (totally misread the idea in a religious stupor), and made the false accusation that the film is ATHEISTIC (i.e. made an irresponsible and uninformed judgment call for America). And whenever the word ‘atheist’ comes up in Hollywood, it doesn’t take too long before the religious bloodhounds come out of the woodwork to wreck everybody’s good ol’ time. So, because most of the US don’t want my kind ’round here, it was clouded by a sea of protest and American controversy that killed its box-office potential. I take great offense to this, but only because it was killed in the US for its secular nature, and not its average quality.

Based on a Young Adults novel by Phillip Pullman, The Golden Compass takes place in an alternate reality, where Earth is Earth, but there are some major differences. There is a North Pole and an Oxford, for instance, but all humans have souls that exist outside the body in the form of a dæmon, or a spirit-animal. It’s kind of different. So in this alternate-Earth, the entire planet is controlled by an authoritative theocracy called the Magisterium. The theocracy has banned the study of a substance called “Dust”, a mystical substance that has potential to threaten the Magisterium and its grip on the world. But a scientist named Lord Asriel is studying the effects of this substance nonetheless, and departs from Oxford to the North Pole to do further research on the matter. His niece, Lyra, stays at Oxford to be a ward of Jordan College. Things get crazy, however, when a representative of the Magisterium named Ms. Coulter offers to take Lyra to the north to be her assistant with things here and there. She agrees, and departs the college, but before she leaves, she’s entrusted by the college headmaster with the possession of a peculiar and powerful object called the althiometer, or the Golden Compass. It can answer any question about any topic posed by the owner, but Lyra cannot operate it. Regardless, she graciously accepts it, but as she does, things start to happen that she cannot explain, such as the disappearance of children around town and Ms. Coulter’s suspicious and sudden hesitation to go to the north. Lyra, aided by her dæmon named Pan, must uncover the secrets that the Magisterium, and perhaps Ms. Coulter herself, are hiding from her as things go from magical, to mysterious, to magical again in this wild winter-themed secular fantasy that features both an anti-superstitious agenda as well as talking bears!

Honestly, I feel a little overwhelmed. Once again, a fantasy film goes out of its way to cram a bunch of stuff into a relatively short amount of time. Everybody wants to emulate the dense mythology of The Lord of the Rings movies, but people tend to forget that the theatrical cut of The Fellowship of the Ring was 178 minutes!!! You have to sacrifice brevity for density, but The Golden Compass makes a misstep by thinking that they can do both. You can’t have your cake and eat it too! At 113 minutes, its not even 2 hours, and while I can see that this might be a boon to the PG audience, who want to get their fidgety kids home as soon as possible, it overloads any logical person who is trying to immerse themselves in the fantasy. It just needed a little more substance to substantiate the exposition.

The world is pretty cool, though. Populated with all kinds of magic and ornate filigree on all the metal, this is a fantasy-lover’s dream. The special effects, appraised at near the $120 million mark, are pretty damn cool as well. Magic here is the kind that people don’t cast at the slightest whim, so when magic happens, you fall for it. It is spaced out pretty well, and I can appreciate it for its own sake, to be sure. The magic insect robots were in particular a highlight, and the talking polar bears, while totally fake, weren’t bad compared to my initial reaction to the idea of talking animal CG effects. The dæmon, Pan, could have used some work, but all in all a passing grade for anyone who loves the idea of an immersive visual experience.

Although any notion of getting into the movie is crushed when the adult actors hit the screen. URGHHH! What the hell, Nicole Kidman?!? You are not good at what you do! Ms. Coulter’s character flounders under the strain of Kidman’s robotic aversion to natural human emotion. While I understand that she may not have been wired by her manufacturers to exhibit human emotions, perhaps that means she needs to be in a different line of work, like vehicle assembly line work or trying to terminate Sarah Connor. She’s one step away from getting on Cinematronica’s least Wanted List, so I hope for her sake that she shapes up soon. Daniel Craig and Ian McShane also receive failing grades in their respective roles, although McShane does DO a lot more than he did in my previous feature, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. They could have made me care but didn’t. Whoopsie! Oh, well. The children almost make up for their adult counterparts, though. Dakota Blue Richards plays Lyra, and she nails it with a precociousness that doesn’t seem to come from a manufactured Hollywood place, but from a real curiosity and joy that I found refreshing. She makes for someone worth caring about, even when she’s being mouthy and anti-establishmenty towards the end. I hope to see her in a lot more in the near future. Ben Walker also excels as Lyra’s friend Roger, and although his screen time is tragically short, he performs admirably. I enjoyed his street-smart character immensely, and I hope to see him in the next movie (oh, wait… never mind…). An adult I did like in this movie was Sam Elliott, who plays Texan (?) Lee Scoresby. He’s typical Sam, the straight-talkin’ Southern gentleman, and that’s good enough for me. He was in Road House, you know.

All right, let’s get something straight here; this movie has little to no trace of atheism in it, not that it should be a problem if there is. If it were really a thoroughly atheist work, there wouldn’t be, oh, I don’t know, TALKING POLAR BEARS AND MAGIC! Atheists don’t believe in anything supernatural, so to come out and say that a movie featuring spirit-animals and magical insect robots is a secular work only makes me laugh heartily. Certainly there is a touch of humanism in the work, and a little even bleeds through to the film (thankfully). But it portrays the Magisterium, the thinly-veiled Catholic Church allegory, as actually having powers, magic, and, in the book, a living, breathing God! If an atheist REALLY wanted to make a book for children, he or she would state very plainly that there is no God, never was, and superstitions like magic and talking animals are figments of the imagination. Instead, we have Pullman throwing more fantasy out at us than C.S. Lewis after a particularly wonderful Anglican service. Pullman is not trying to convert anyone, obviously, and this work was only SLIGHTLY influenced by his godless heathen ways, but the religious powers that be felt the need to dish out a powerful lesson to what one Amazon reader calls “completely Anti-Christian” and what I call “completely NOT worth the controversy”.

It’s a toss-up. On the one hand, I enjoyed parts of this “disturbing atheist fantasy”. It has an undeniable British charm to it that rises above its droll presentation. It does have some anti-religious themes, mostly involving organized religion, and I think that’s something we can all get behind. And it has Sam Elliott in it! But it’s another case of too much info, too little run-time. It can get a little silly sometimes with all the talking animals, and not silly in a “ha-ha” kind of way, but silly in a kind of “ha-ha I can’t believe a talking polar bear is giving out serious battle plans to a Texan, a witch, and an ermine spirit-animal!” And it has Nicole Kidman in it! It’s a toss-up, as I said, so I’ll go ahead and give it a middle-ground rating since this movie lost so much money for New Line that the likelihood of there being a sequel is slim to none, which is close to the same probability of there being a God. I give The Golden Compass 5 kinda not-really atheist messages out of 10.

Tomorrow I continue the Failed Franchises theme with Wing Commander! Don’t shoot yourself in the foot until then!

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2 responses

18 08 2009
Bartleby

You’ve just touched on pretty much everything wrong with the film. Although, there is one more big one. The reason the Catholic Church and company were up in arms were because of the book’s content which actually specifically mentions that the Authority, i.e. God, isn’t the real “God” if such a figure even ever existed, and that Dust is the actual linking force of the universe which occured without a diety. At the end of the Golden Compass (y’know, that scene where the film just ends?) Lyra’s uncle, i.e. her father, **BIG SPOILERS** kills the young boy who she was trying to save, and heads off to kill the AUTHORITY. So, in the ending of the Golden Compass (and based on the previews I think they actually filmed this ending) a character announces he plans to kill God and sets off to do so with various fallen angels.**END SPOILERS**

Now, as a Christian, I wasn’t offended and went to this movie having read the books and expected the end to remain intact. But no, nothing. I’m not sure why either, since the movie feels curiously incomplete without it. At the end of the day, the work is still fantasy with it’s author’s views and ideas layered underneath. At most it’s gonna provoke thought, not kill faith.

Thing is, its actually better this one tanked, because they would have butchered the other films in the series. The anti-religious message was simply too deep to sever from the rest of the story, and they wouldn’t have gone forward with it there.

As far as good children’s fantasy goes, I thought Spiderwick Chronicles was actually quite good and arriving at around the same time period.

18 08 2009
cinematronica

Thanks for pointing that out, Bartleby. I was actually aware of this, but I don’t know how many spoilers to put out there. I thought it was kind of a let-down how they ended it in this one; they saved a crescendo move like Asriel KILLING A CHILD for what would be the second movie and kept the happy false ending for all the filthy movie-going plebeians. I didn’t agree with it, but it was just one of the MANY reasons that this will probably be a one-shot film. On a personal note, it’s good to see a Christian on the site interacting with an unabashed heathen like me. There’s hope for the world left! I appreciate the support, Bartleby, I truly do, and if you’re ever in Houston, come by the local Outback Steakhouse and I’ll get you a Wallaby Darned on me! 🙂 Until then, come back tomorrow, when I’ll have more material to present for your viewing pleasure!

P.S.- I was actually going to check out The Spiderwick Chronicles soon! What a mind-reader!

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