The Golden Compass — reviewed by a fan

I have not yet had a chance to see The Golden Compass, which opens in less than two weeks, and I am inclined to think I should avoid reading any reviews that might pop up between now and the local screening. Best to see the film fresh, and all that. (Until recently, I read everything I could because I was working on a few articles about this film and I needed to be as up-to-date as possible. But I recently filed the last of my sight-unseen articles, and the next piece I write will be an actual review. So I can arguably afford to avoid reading about this film for now.)

However, I could not resist checking out what the fan site had to say today. An American colleague of mine recently saw the film and suggested it would have been better if the filmmakers had taken three hours to tell their story, as each of the Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) films did, rather than two hours or less. And that impression seems to be confirmed by excerpts like these (emphasis in the original, and spoiler warning to those who have not read the book):

The film executes the small things (described here) exceedingly well, but unfortunately it falters when it comes to maintaining a coherent whole. Scenes are not given enough time to breath – there is not enough quiet time amidst the boisterous goings-on. Apart from the opening section at Oxford, with a more languorous pace, the plot is driven remorselessly forward and there are several occasions where it is pushed on by characters knowing (or guessing) things extremely quickly. The rapidity of the film is best exemplified by what happens after the bear fight. Iorek defeats Ragnar, declares himself king, then turns to Lyra and says “and now I will take you to Bolvangar.” And then they’re off. . . .

The movie’s Magisterium, alas, is a cartoon villain, with no indication of a driving belief philosophy behind its domination of Brytain (and Europe). The removal of their religious motivations makes the institution incredibly bland, a mere band of thugs with a domineering power for no apparent reason. . . .

The Golden Compass has what it takes to be a success. It’s not Lord of the Rings, but it’s not Eragon either. Fans of the books will love the visualisation of many of the books scenes – especially at Oxford – but the feel of the book is still not entirely quite there. There’s no real grand sense of adventure with such little time to stop and gaze. . . . Too much of is simply events coming one after another and the pity is that just another few calmer scenes could have made the movie so much better. As it is, the film comes in under two hours anyway, so it’s hard to see what the rush was. . .

The last three chapters being removed seriously hurts the structure of the film – there’s little real intrigue in a story where children are kidnapped and then rescued – especially with such ease, for the witches come to the Gyptian’s aid for no given reason and the Gyptians are somehow able to rush a rifle regiment across open snow. As it is, the film simply ends with Lyra and Roger in Lee’s balloons, heading towards the north to find Lord Asriel. The moral ambiguity of Roger’s death at Lord Asriel’s hands and the spectular tearing into a new world could have elevated the film just another step up, into ‘great’ rather than merely ‘good’.

The review also mentions that the film begins with Eva Green doing the opening narration and explaining some of the story’s key concepts. That sounds rather like the way The Fellowship of the Ring opened with Cate Blanchett spelling out the history of Middle-Earth in voice-over.

These are the John Connors I know, I know …

While the world waits with bated breath to see whether or not Christian Bale, who turns 34 in January, will play John Connor in Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins, I figured I’d round up some pictures of the various other actors who have tackled the role so far. Here they are, arranged from the youngest to the oldest.

Note: Ever since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) established that it is possible to change the past, or the future, or the present, or whatever, several different timelines have branched off from that film. Indeed, the film itself originally had an epilogue that took place a few decades into the future, but it was cut from the final release. So I have numbered the timelines based on the order in which they were filmed.

John Connor, unborn — inside his mother’s tummy

John Connor, toddler — Dalton Abbott, age 1

John Connor, age ? — John DeVito, age 9

John Connor, age 10 — Edward Furlong, age 13

John Connor, age 16, timeline 4 — Thomas Dekker, age 19

John Connor, age 23, timeline 3 — Nick Stahl, age 22

John Connor, age 33, timeline 3 — Christian Bale, age 34

John Connor, age 44, timeline 1 — Michael Edwards, age ?

John Connor, age 44, timeline 2 — Michael Edwards, age ?

For now, I’m ignoring T2 3-D: Battle Across Time (1996), the Universal Studios theme-park spectacle that co-starred Edward Furlong and some of the other Terminator 2 alumni.

MAR 9 UPDATE: I have added a photo of the young John Connor who is played by John DeVito in flashback sequences in two episodes from the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

JUL 16 UPDATE: I have added an image of Christian Bale from the teaser for Terminator Salvation that was released today.

Newsbites: Watchmen! Trek! Jesus! Astrology!

Just a few more items that have come up in the last few days.

1. says Watchmen director Zack Snyder plans to shoot some of the parallel storylines that were cut out of the main film, possibly in animated form, and release them separately, possibly on a DVD that would come out at the same time the movie hits the big screen. Chris at Movie Marketing Madness says they should take the idea a step further and release the parallel films “in advance of the feature film for free through iTunes in much the same way Hotel Chevalier was released prior to The Darjeeling Limited.”

2. William Shatner is still annoyed that he hasn’t been cast in Star Trek XI. He recently told Extra TV: “How could you not put one of the founding figures into a movie that was being resurrected? That doesn’t make good business sense to me! . . . I’ve become even more popular than I was playing Captain Kirk. I’m good box office and I get publicity.” Three points come to mind in reply.

First, Captain Kirk died in Star Trek: Generations (1994; my comments), and in such a way that it would be exceedingly difficult to resurrect him even if they devoted an entire movie to doing so, the way Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) was devoted to bringing Spock back. And of course, this new movie will be too busy doing other things to do that.

Second, Spock was part of the franchise even before Kirk came along, so in a way it’s kind of fitting that the reboot should revolve around Spock more than Kirk. Plus, Leonard Nimoy brings a certain credibility to the film that Shatner lacks; the three Star Trek films that Nimoy directed or produced were all fairly good, while the one film that Shatner directed was one of the worst in the series.

Third, as Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere has argued, Shatner has become something of a parody of himself, so much so that it might be difficult to take him seriously as Captain Kirk again. Shatner himself inadvertently points in this direction when he says, “I’ve become even more popular than I was playing Captain Kirk.” Popular as what? And if he truly is more popular now than he was then, might not his current persona overshadow any attempt to return to one of his older, more serious roles?

3. Brett McCracken at The Search has some interesting thoughts on What Would Jesus Buy?, the anti-consumerism documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me (2004; my review) fame. He concludes:

I don’t know what Jesus would buy, but just like he’d be angry when his name is slapped on a pair of socks and sold to Christians for $10, I’m sure he’d likewise be pissed at his name being so cavalierly invoked to sell America on anti-consumerism.

4. Michael Ward has a fascinating article up at Touchstone magazine’s website on the astrological themes in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s must reading for anyone who would praise Lewis’s books while slamming the Harry Potter books and others like it for allegedly promoting occultism.

5. 20th Century Fox has apparently apologized to The Movie Blog for having one of their reviews yanked off of YouTube.

The Golden Compass — Kate Bush’s ‘Lyra’

Lyra‘, the song that Kate Bush recorded for the soundtrack to The Golden Compass, was played on the BBC today, and it’s pretty underwhelming. It starts around the 44:20 mark. Among the lyrics:

Lyra and her face
Full of grace
Two worlds collide around her
The truth lies deep inside her

Lyra as a sort of Marian bridge between the human and the divine? Yeah, that won’t add to the debate over this film’s religious and/or anti-religious sensibility, will it. (Hat tip to

Christian Bale in Terminator 4 … but as who?

Ain’t It Cool News says Christian Bale will play John Connor in Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins. says he will play one of the Terminators, instead. Who to believe? Who to believe?

If Bale is playing John Connor, then my first reaction to this news is to wonder if Bale, who is currently making only his second Batman movie, really needs another action-hero franchise right now. Then again, producer James Middleton did say a couple months ago that the new Terminator trilogy won’t really be about John Connor, but will rather be about a new character whose story is influenced by John Connor much the same way that Judah Ben-Hur’s story was influenced by Jesus Christ. So maybe this would be little more than an extended cameo.

If Bale is playing one of the Terminators, on the other hand, then that could provide a nice contrast to his work as Batman — kind of like how Ian McKellen played the heroic Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) while playing the villainous Magneto in X-Men (2000-2006).

And now, for some reason, I am recalling how Christian Bale starred in American Psycho (2000) — murderous and naked, just like a Terminator! — immediately after he played the Son of God in Mary, Mother of Jesus (1999). Versatile, this actor is.

It’s not anti-Catholic, because it’s Gnostic.

MTV Movies Blog has posted the second part of their interview with Chris Weitz, writer-director of The Golden Compass. It includes these interesting bits:

QUESTION #5 (from
The potential of the upcoming film has become somewhat controversial, mainly due to the misguided notion that the books are deliberately and vehemently anti-religious and that the aim of the series was to “kill” God. Most notable, The Catholic League recently published a rather overzealous article that has been widely spread across a variety of media. How would you react to the statements made; that Philip Pullman is simply a messenger for a virulently atheist cause and is endeavoring to ensnare as many children as possible with his anti-religious message?

Hey guys, great website. Well, I agree with you. I think that the charge that Pullman wants to “kill God,” in children’s minds or anybody else’s, is wrongheaded, and has been supported with some really selective cutting and pasting. I think Pullman probably has an issue with a certain view of God – which is to say, as a subject worth killing people over. In that regard, the institution that I think most closely resembles the Magisterium is the government of Iran. I think it’s a shame that people are reacting to a movie they haven’t seen by attacking a book they haven’t understood. I also think that “His Dark Materials” is some of the finest literature written in the last fifty years, whether it be for children or adults, and that anyone who reads it with an open mind is likely to come to the conclusion that the “agenda” of the books, if there is one, is to promote and applaud loyalty, kindness, and the courage to follow one’s inner sense of justice.

The Magisterium — a term fraught with Catholic significance — is now some sort of subtle stand-in for an Islamic theocracy? That’s the subtext? Does this mean we should be looking for Muslim symbols, along with all the Orthodox icons and Catholic mottos that Weitz has already indicated will be scattered throughout the film? Somehow, I don’t think so, but we will see.

It is interesting, though, to see how everyone involved in the making of this film seems to be eager to say that the villainous Christians in this trilogy are actually metaphors for other villains in the real world; author Philip Pullman, for example, has said that one of the worst “theocracies” in recent times was the atheist Soviet Union. If the real point of this story is to oppose the abusive misuse of authority in all of its forms, then why is this series so particular in its use of Christian mythology, for lack of a better word? Where are the overt references to Islam or Marxism? Why can’t the storytellers just say what they mean — whether in the story itself, or in their promotion of it?

QUESTION #6: (from Darren):
You have said that “I will not be involved with any ‘watering down’ of books two and three” whilst Nicole Kidman has been quoted as saying “I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.” Without ‘watering down’ the main subject matter of the remaining books, how do you propose to deal with the sensitivities of Ms. Kidman?

I think the key to your question is whether books two and three are anti-Catholic or not. Some people, for instance Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, think that they are. I do not. My feeling about how some people have approached the intellectual and theological content of “His Dark Materials” is that they’re refusing to deal with its variety and subtlety. If you look at the proto-myths behind books 2 and 3, you come up with the Gnostic idea of a demiurge – a fallen angel who sets himself up as God and rules by oppression. To use this rather obscure early Christian philosophy as a root-myth is to me not specifically anti-Catholic, any more than a film involving a Greek myth would. It sets up an alternate series of events in an alternate world.

Also important is the idea of the “felix culpa” – the notion that the fall of man was not a bad thing but a good one. This is a medieval theological concept, invoking the fall as the opportunity without which the messiah would not have come. In “His Dark Materials,” the “felix culpa” is Lyra’s falling in love with Will. Again, I don’t see how one is more anti-Catholic an idea than the other. It’s true that Pullman takes issue with dogma and with the abuse of religion for political power, but the critique about dogma applies far more widely than Catholicism or even religion; and the last time that the Catholic church directly exerted political power on a state level was during the middle ages.

In other words, I think that an accurate adaptation of “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” would not be anti-Catholic. What would be anti-Catholic would be to go out of one’s way to attack people’s beliefs, which I sometimes think is what people have in mind when they want to apply their own ideas and glosses of “His Dark Materials,” which have been formed outside of the context of the books, to the films.

At the risk of losing the “subtlety” that Weitz rightly mentions here, I think the early Gnostics would have been surprised if anyone had told them that they were not somehow opposed to, and thus “anti-”, the orthodox catholic Church of their time. The Gnostic creation myths explicitly identify the evil demiurge with the Old Testament God, and there is nothing in traditional Christian teaching that allows us to say that the God of Abraham, etc., was actually evil. Indeed, New Testament texts such as the Gospel of John and Paul’s first letter to Timothy seem at times to have been written with the express purpose of warning people away from Gnostic heresies.

But this is a discussion that could take quite a while, and I haven’t got the time to get into it all that deeply at the moment. Suffice it to say that this is bringing back memories of all the debates I have had over The Truman Show (1998; my review), and whether the manipulative, deceiving Ed Harris character there is a stand-in for God, or the Devil, or both.

Put simply, whenever you cast a god as a demon, or vice versa, you always get some interpreters who say the resulting figure is both divine and evil, and so the story is anti-religious; and you always get some interpreters who say the resulting figure is evil but not truly divine, and so the story is against false religion but in favour of true religion, or at least not opposed to true religion, whatever that might be; and you always get some interpreters who say the confusion of gods with devils is, itself, inherently anti-religious, and so it doesn’t really matter how opposed to devils the story might be, especially if the story is silent or vague at best on what a true religion or a true god might look like.

Matters are confused even further when the god-demon is explicitly identified with existing gods in existing mythologies, and when the heroes of the new story behave in exactly the same way that the villains of those mythologies do — tempting young couples to eat the forbidden fruit, and so on. Are those just superficial elements on a story that, deep down, actually affirms the original mythology? Maybe, maybe not, and so the debate rages.

Finally, re: the “felix culpa”. If, as Weitz says, the fall of man was a “good thing” because it led to the coming of the messiah, and if the Lyra-Will relationship is a re-enactment of this fall, then where is the messiah that follows them in this story? Or would it perhaps be more accurate to say that Pullman’s story posits the Fall as a good thing in and of itself, rather than as an evil thing which paved the way for a greater good? (Perhaps the real “felix culpa” in this trilogy would be something like, say, the murder committed by Lord Asriel — because it opens up a portal into other worlds, through which Lyra is ultimately able to fulfill her destiny.)

Side note: Some commentators, including myself, have made much of the fact that Pullman’s story makes elaborate use of the Old Testament and church history but never says what role Jesus played in getting from one to the other. However, Tony Watkins, the British author of Dark Matter: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy His Dark Materials, has interviewed Pullman and looked at some of his notes, and he says Jesus plays a similar role in the back-story to ‘His Dark Materials’ that he played in Gnostic mythology, as a dispenser of divine wisdom who opposed the Old Testament God and was misrepresented by some of his followers. In other words, Pullman’s Jesus is “anti-Catholic”, too.