All fantasy films lead to Star Wars.

A complete version of that Atlantic Monthly article on The Golden Compass has been posted here, and alas, no, it does not seem that either I or my colleague were quoted. But I am struck by the following paragraphs:

The final, shooting script includes no mention of sin or the end of death. As [New Line Cinema's production president Toby] Emmerich told me, Dust is “akin to the Force” in Star Wars. Coulter tells Lyra that Dust is “evil and wicked” and makes people “sick.” Asriel sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi: “They taught themselves to fear Dust, instead of master it,” he says. “They’ve ignored a tremendous source of power … That is what it all comes down to, Lyra. That is what Dust is. Power. Without it, we are like children before the might of the Magisterium.”

It may make sense if you’re in a dark room dazzled by special effects and not thinking too hard. Then again, maybe it won’t. What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all: “Master Dust!” “Freedom is at stake!” “We’re not alone. We’re never alone! We have each other.” They satisfy, but they don’t really explain. Or perhaps they offer explanations so familiar and straightforward that they don’t invite questions. . . .

Marketing plans aside, New Line executives likely believe they were doing Pullman no great disservice by stripping out his theology and replacing it with some vague derivative of the Force. Values such as obedience, religious devotion, and chastity are so rare in Hollywood’s culture that they probably seem archaic and quaint—courtly rules that no one lives by anyway. Certainly not something to get exercised over.

It occurs to me that, if Philip Pullman’s fans are upset that his story has been dumbed down so that the anti-theistic elements are now indistinguishable from the Force, then it may be some small comfort to them that the pro-theistic elements in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) got the same treatment. To quote the review of that film written by my friend Jeffrey Overstreet:

While other characters’ roles have been expanded, the lion’s appearances are painfully brief. He doesn’t have the time onscreen to earn our affection and awe the way we might have hoped. And scene by scene, the writers consistently skirt the issue of Aslan’s authority, eliminating most references to his history, power, and influence. Aslan’s father, the Emperor-beyond-the-sea, is never mentioned. Instead, the lion waxes philosophical like Obi-Wan Kenobi, mentioning the Deep Magic that “governs” his “destiny.” Huh?

So it’s not like Hollywood has any particular agenda here. Hollywood just has a habit of turning distinctive stories into pale replicas of proven hits. Especially when the proven hit was a mushy universalist pastiche of existing beliefs to begin with.

Fox Walden gets more bad press.

First there was all that confusion over the title of The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. Now Fox Walden is getting even more bad buzz thanks to Big Fox‘s treatment of a critic at a Denver Film Festival screening of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. According to Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, this critic was told he would be “physically blocked” from going into the theatre even if he had bought a ticket to see it like all the other festivalgoers. Oy vey.

NOV 12 UPDATE: Jeffrey Wells issues a clarification. Seems it was an “overzealous” festival rep, and not a Fox rep, that threatened to block the critic. But Variety magazine has now run a review of the film that could perhaps be best described as tepid — and so the buzz on this film isn’t exactly getting all that much better.

Lions for Lambs — the review’s up!

My review of Lions for Lambs is now up at CT Movies.

As an amateur number-cruncher, I can’t resist noting a few extra things about this film — and specifically about its place in Tom Cruise’s career.

Going back to Mission: Impossible II (2000), Cruise is arguably the only movie star to have appeared in seven consecutive films that earned over $100 million in North America — eight, if we count his cameo in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). I say “arguably” because it all depends on whether you think Tom Hanks‘s vocal performance in Toy Story 2 (1999) counts as an “appearance”; if it does, then Hanks has also had seven such films in a row, between Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).

At any rate, Cruise’s track record would be even better — averaging almost one such film per year as far back as A Few Good Men (1992) — if it weren’t for a couple of films he made in 1999, at a time when he apparently felt the need to prove his artistic cred, having long since proved himself as a box-office commodity. I refer, of course, to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. For a brief, shining moment, Cruise put commercial viability aside in order to work with one of the industry’s oldest and most reclusive living legends, and then to be part of the ensemble in a film by one of the industry’s hottest up-and-coming indie filmmakers.

So it is intriguing to see that Cruise, in choosing to make Lions for Lambs his first starring vehicle since he took the reins at United Artists, has apparently opted for something resembling artistic cred again, rather than anything box-office related. The new film even has echoes of the two 1999 films. Like Eyes Wide Shut, it is directed by an old Hollywood legend — in this case Robert Redford — and like Magnolia, it is an ensemble film in which Cruise spends much of his screen time giving an interview to a somewhat antagonistic journalist.

(In a weird way, the fact that Cruise shares top billing with two noticeably older and far more talented actors — namely Redford and Meryl Streep — also brings to mind that period in the late ’80s and early ’90s when Cruise made a point of co-starring with the likes of Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson.)

But Lions for Lambs is an extremely talky and didactic picture, so much so that it could almost have been a play, though not a very good one. And it’s an explicitly political movie, released at a time when audiences don’t seem to be remotely interested in explicitly political movies. With almost zero box-office potential, it’s a really peculiar choice for a movie star who is trying to revitalize an old movie studio.

At this point, I turn to Karina at SpoutBlog, who has an interesting take on the significance of this film for Cruise’s career:

As political polemic and as entertainment, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs is mostly unsuccessful, but as a statement of purpose on behalf of its co-star and executive producer, Tom Cruise, it’s mildly fascinating. Through sheer force of star power, Cruise manages to temporarily hijack this lumpy lecture, and turn it into a battle cry against the corporate media that both built and destroyed him. . . .

I can’t say Karina’s point had occurred to me in so many words, but I did notice something along these lines while watching the film.

In one of the film’s final scenes, a guy watches the news, and the major military story of the day is relegated to a text crawl at the bottom of the screen while the program dwells on sleazy tabloid footage of a Britney-like pop star and the would-be rapper she’s divorcing. I found myself wondering how that scene would have played if the footage were of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and whether making this film was basically Cruise’s way of saying, “Hey, stop obsessing over my private life, and pay attention to something else for a change!”

As it is, the experts are predicting this film will make less than $7 million this weekend — easily the worst box-office performance of any Tom Cruise movie in its first weekend of wide release since The Color of Money (1986; $6.4 million) or Legend (1985; $4.3 million), with the exception of Magnolia, which played on fewer screens than any Tom Cruise movie since All the Right Moves (1983). And you just know that the media will pounce on figures like these to say that Cruise’s career is falling even deeper into whatever hole he began digging when he jumped on Oprah’s couch.

But perhaps that’s all part of Cruise’s plan. Maybe he made this film just to show that he could throw commercial viability to the winds again, and to lower everyone’s expectations so that he can stage a big comeback with his next film.

Review: Lions for Lambs (dir. Robert Redford, 2007)

Imagine that you are Tom Cruise, and that your career and reputation have begun to falter a wee bit, and so you decide to launch a new phase in your career by, say, taking charge of an entire studio. Imagine that the first film released under your leadership — a film that, not incidentally, features you as one of its stars — is about to come out. Now imagine that the only publicity you intend to do for this movie is a single, private, hour-long, one-on-one interview with a reporter who works for a TV network but brings no recording devices whatsoever with her, let alone anything resembling a camera crew. No photos, no televised interviews, no beaming face on television screens everywhere; instead, nothing but your words, as scribbled down in shorthand by a reporter who, incidentally, doesn’t like your movies very much.

[Read more...]

Winona Ryder is going to play Spock’s mother?

Variety reports that Winona Ryder is going to play “the Vulcan mother of a young Spock (Zachary Quinto)” in Star Trek XI. One slight problem: Spock’s mother is human. It’s kind of essential to Spock’s character that he be the product of a mixed-species relationship. Let’s hope the Variety reporter simply got his facts wrong.

Amanda Grayson was played in the TV series (1966-1969) and in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) by Jane Wyatt, who was 57 when she created the character during the TV show’s second season. Ryder is 36 — and Quinto, the actor who will apparently be playing her son, is 30.

“What’s left of Pullman’s story is a string of disconnected proclamations that obscure not just his original point, but any point at all.”

So says the Atlantic Monthly in a story on the controversy surrounding The Golden Compass and its transition from anti-religious novel to not-quite-so-anti-religious movie. In addition to getting some revealing quotes from author Philip Pullman and writer-director Chris Weitz, reporter Hanna Rosin spoke to me and at least one other Christian commentator for this story, but since it is accessible only to Atlantic Monthly subscribers, I have no idea whether it quotes us. At any rate, a summary of the story is available at the fan site