Getting Our Bearings: A Review of "The Golden Compass"

Getting Our Bearings: A Review of "The Golden Compass" December 12, 2007

“When Polar Bears Attack” is not the name of a new Fox Television reality show. It is instead the only remotely interesting part in an otherwise confused, tiresome, and overly-hyped film. The Golden Compass directed by Chris Weitz, was billed as another Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy epic film. It falls far short.

For months we’ve been hearing, reading, and talking about the dangers of Philip Pullman’s atheistic children’s literary trilogy His Dark Materials. In particular we’ve been hearing about these books, which came out in the late 90s but are only now gaining American publicity as New Line Cinemas produced the film adaptation of the first of the books. Christians were preparing for protests, evangelical authors were publishing books intended to give insight to Christian parents, and theologians were talking about Pullman’s atheism on the airwaves.

But in all the hype and concern it never seemed to occur to anyone that the movie might actually be bad. And it is. On opening night The Golden Compass bombed in North America. And for those of us who did have the misfortune of suffering through this film we can probably all agree that it fails because – much like atheism itself – it has no heart.

The story is of an orphan, Lyra Belacqua, who resides at the prestigious Jordan College. She and this college are in a parallel world, one much like our own but a bit more dated. In this world every human being has a “daemon” which is somewhat like their soul in animal form walking and talking alongside them. Also in this world is the Magisterium, the ruling authority (in the books this is blatantly identified as the church, though in the film this concept is almost completely lost). The Magisterium have been in control for centuries, but when Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel begins a quest to discover the power of “Dust” it sends the Magisterium into a frenzy and they send their most fearsome agent, Miss Coulter, to seize Lyra, who possesses the alethiometer (the one remaining “truth compass”) and to put a stop to Lord Asriel’s endeavors. There’s a host of other interesting characters, including water gypsies, aeronauts, and, of course, the armored bears.

What makes a good fantasy (book or film) is the awe and wonder of it all. That fantastical aspect that draws you into another world, creates deep affections for characters, and contains the elements of the grandiose and inspiring. The Golden Compass lacks all of these things. The story, which in the books is actually very well written, loses its audience throughout the film. It feels confusing and unsure of itself. It made my companions and I feel as though we walked in on a conversation that had already been taking place for five minutes. What did we miss? The books carry a back story that amazingly crafts a world of intrigue, mystery, suspense, and, yes even, affection. The movie, for the sake of time (which I appreciate), attempted to pull the most important scenes from the book and adapt them for film. This is common for any film adaptation (see both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter for examples). But for some reason the screenplay writers of Compass lost the logical flow of the story itself in the midst of their compressing. There is no heart to this film. It is cold and stilted.

While I will heartily disagree with Philip Pullman’s atheism, his ridiculous picture of the church and Christianity, and his pathetic arguments against God, I can at least say he wrote an intriguing story (one that kept me on the edge of my seat quite frequently throughout reading all three volumes). Chris Weitz, however, will have trouble keeping anyone in their seats at all for this film. If Polar Bear attacks are as good as this film gets then I don’t think Christians have much to worry about. This film will entice few to read Pullman’s books, and even fewer to accept the arguments for atheism. Perhaps if Weitz had possessed an alethiometer prior to making this film he would have learned the truth the easy way, and avoided making such a terrible film.

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