Finished with their phenomenal Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Line Cinema needed another series, something with box-office promise. Harry Potter and the Narnia chronicles were already spoken for. So they seized the next-best thing: Philip Pullman’s award-winning trilogy, His Dark Materials.
The first movie, The Golden Compass, is full of dazzling spectacles. Director Chris Weitz conjures awe-inspiring environments and fantastic creatures that recall Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies. And, like Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Compass features an engaging young heroine and a big fuzzy fellow who likes to roar.
Lyra’s a girl who has been prophesied (of course) to become a young woman of destiny (of course) who will help rebels fight against a wicked empire (of course). Lyra ends up dodging a mysterious woman named Mrs. Coulter, only to discover that children are having their daemons — animal spirit guides — cut away from them. Can she save them?
The cast is engaging — especially Sam Elliott as a maverick aeronaut and Nicole Kidman as an icy villain. Elliott basically reprises his role from The Big Lebowski, a welcome personality that moviegoers will be happy to follow anywhere. Kidman is at her best: seductive, fiercely intelligent, and characterized by a conscience that is clearly struggling with the cruelty she’s quick to inflict. (How Kidman could say that this story does not offend her Catholic faith is hard to comprehend. Doesn’t she know that her character is the one bound to lure Yahweh into his fatal fall later in the series? Doesn’t she know that Mrs. Coulter will help our “hero” learn that Adam and Eve’s rebellion was actually a good thing?)
Compared to Narnia‘s Lucy, Compass‘s Lyra is off-puttingly shrill. Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards seems severe, like the kind of girl who would constantly be in trouble for disrespecting her elders and breaking the rules. That’s exactly the kind of girl that Pullman’s story celebrates, but those who see Lyra portrayed in the film may see more clearly that she is not the kind of role model parents should recommend for their children.
You would hope that a big-screen version of The Golden Compass would be enchanting… but there’s no sense of wonder in this frantic tour of wonderland, and Lyra escapes trouble so easily, there’s little suspense. For all of the spectacular CGI, the exquisite production design, and the elaborate and inventive costumes, there just isn’t much beneath the glossy exteriors to make us care about what’s happening. And as this is by far the most enchanting of the three stories in Pullman’s trilogy, that does not bode well for future episodes.
Worse, Compass is too much story for a two-hour time slot. The film feels like a highlight reel from a four-hour version, and it lacks the gravity of the Jackson films. The climactic battle is, well, just another CGI brouhaha ready-made for video games.
Worst of all, the film perpetuates Pullman’s obviously, laughably misguided subversion of Christian faith.
There are the up-front attacks: Characters begin to speak about the rebellion against “the Authority” (who will later be identified as “Yahweh”). The Magisterium, a term that refers to the authority of scripture, is represented here as a conspiratorial agency that oppresses through violence and censorship not unlike the Nazis. And if a polar bear gets to smash through a wall, you can bet that wall will be decorated with religious iconography.
And then there are the more subtle implications. The villains are trying to “cut” the souls out of children. But in Pullman’s world, those “souls” are called “daemons”. Thus, anyone trying to “cast out demons” is really trying to carve innocence out of the kids. How’s that for a reversal? Just wait until the later episodes, when the Garden of Eden is revisited, and humankind triumphantly embraces temptation in a gesture of defiance against God’s law. Wait until “Yahweh” turns out to be a fallen angel: feeble and senile.
Some will protest that Pullman is critiquing the abuse of religious power, and that he’s actually against religious oppression. But remember — this is a movie designed for children. Children do not have the sophistication to know the differnece between a god named Yahweh and a critique of history’s misconceptions about the Almighty. They’re going to come away thinking that “demons” are cute and cuddly. They’ll come away hearing that the Church is a force out to torment them. And yes, the church has had its periods of horrific misbehavior. But Christ is the foundation of the church, and he stands in stark opposition to oppression, cruelty, and tyranny. The Golden Compass is an imagaintive fantasy, but at its heart it is an elaborate work of religious bigotry, carefully calculated to — and I’ll use the author’s own bold claim — “undermine Christian faith.”
Weitz tiptoes around Pullman’s mean-spirited caricature of Christianity, toning down the bigotry for the sake of box office dollars. That’s not a speculation — that is what he specifically claims in interviews. He wants this film to be a success so that he can adapt the sequels as faithfully as possible. So brace yourselves for the next two stories, which turn the deceit and devilry up to “11.”
But, aside from all of the attacks on Christian faith, what does this story mean? Pullman’s most endearing character — a polar bear unjustly denied his throne — ends up re-enacting the climax to The Karate Kid … except that this duel ends with more dismemberment. (Again, this is one of the most shockingly violent movies ever marketed to kids.) Thus we learn that the strongest will survive. Exciting, huh?
Maybe that’s all we’re left with, if we decide there’s no authority higher than our own misguided wills. Philip Pullman’s literary style helped his novel guide readers into a compelling narrative. But when his way with words is stripped away, we can see the story for what it is: a celebration of adolescent arrogance that paints almost all authority figures — from parents to the church to the government — as tyrants to be fought against and overthrown.
This kind of story appeals to the rebellious adolescent in all of us. It’s a good thing to resist serving a harsh, wicked master. But to respond by merely serving ourselves, we enslave ourselves to that fickle, self-interested instrument: the human heart. Better to enlist in the service of a benevolent master — one whose love forbids cruelty and oppression. For those who have known loving parents, wise leaders, and communities committed to grace and truth, His Dark Materials will be revealed as a summons into service of what Pullman himself has called “the devil’s party.”