“That’s some pretty fast work, Miss Lyra.” So says an impressed Texan aeronaut to a young English girl after she befriends a depressed talking polar bear, inspires the bear to strike back against some church-based bad guys, and persuades the bear to join her on a quest — all, seemingly, in a matter of minutes. But the aeronaut could just as easily be talking about The Golden Compass, the film in which all these characters appear.
In an age when big-budget movies based on British fantasies tend to run a little long — the first Narnia movie and most of the Harry Potter films run about two and a half hours, and each of the Lord of the Rings films famously clocked in at more than three — this new film, based on the first book of Philip Pullman’s sprawling, controversial His Dark Materials trilogy, manages to wrap things up in less than two hours, and it feels rather rushed as a result.
There is spectacle aplenty here, to be sure. Fans of the book — including those who disagree with the trilogy’s anti-religious thrust but enjoy Pullman’s obvious skills as a writer — will find much to enjoy. For the most part, the actors are perfectly cast in their roles, and the special effects are dazzlingly complex and rendered with just the right, casual touch, especially where the talking animals are concerned.
Some of the talking animals, namely the polar bears, are just that: animals that talk. But many of them are “daemons,” or external manifestations of a human being’s soul. In the parallel universe where The Golden Compass takes place, every person has a daemon, and the daemons of children are constantly shifting shape, from one animal to another; but when these children hit puberty, their daemons settle into one character-defining form for the rest of their lives. (The servants tend to have daemons shaped like dogs, while the villains tend to have daemons shaped like insects and reptiles.)
Against all odds, the film succeeds in creating an environment where the appearance of these animals everywhere is taken for granted, and where the constant shape-shifting by the younger ones seems perfectly natural. But the film is so busy zipping from one plot point to the next that you never quite develop a feel for the relationship that exists between any individual human and his or her daemon. The film gets the mechanics of human-daemon relationships right, but, ironically, it doesn’t quite get the soul.
The movie’s accelerated pace gives short shrift to many other story elements, too.
The story revolves around Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a pre-teen who has been raised as an orphan in an Oxford college under the sponsorship of her “uncle,” an adventurous scientist named Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Shortly after the film begins, Lyra is taken under the wing of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful but, we soon discover, cruel agent of the Magisterium, the church-like organization that dominates their world. (Lord Asriel’s daemon is a snow leopard; Mrs. Coulter’s, a golden monkey that looks kind of glamorous but isn’t afraid to use its claws.)
At one point, the master of the college gives Lyra an alethiometer — a compass-shaped device that reveals the truth to anyone who can interpret its symbols. No one knows how to read it, not even Lyra at first. But then, several scenes later, she tries again, and this time she can read it. Where did her seemingly supernatural talent come from? And where is her sense of discovery, on learning that she has this talent? The film barely has time to even think of such questions, because it is too busy using her skill to move on to the next scene, and the one after that.
Then there are the bears. An entire culture is hinted at in this film, and the bear we get to know best — a disgraced member of ursine royalty named Iorek Byrnison (whose growly voice is provided by Ian McKellen) — has a personal story of defeat, shame and revival that would sustain an entire Rocky movie. But again, the film devotes only a few perfunctory scenes to this subplot, and then it’s off to the next thing. The climactic fight between Iorek and a usurper named Ragnar Sturlusson (voice of Ian McShane) certainly looks kind of cool, but the film simply does not give us time to savour the moment, or to experience the significance of this battle for both Iorek’s personal honor and the fate of the bear kingdom as a whole.
It might be unfair to compare and contrast this film with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, but, well, New Line Cinema, the studio behind both films, has been making those connections in its own ads for some time now. (The fact that McKellen, who once played Gandalf, now appears as a mentor of sorts to Lyra, while Christopher Lee, who once played Saruman, has a cameo as one of the new film’s Magisterial villains, also cannot help but bring the LOTR films to mind.)
So it is worth pointing out that Lyra goes on a journey of rescue and discovery that is not entirely unlike Frodo’s, and she encounters a variety of places, people, and exotic cultures, just as Frodo didbut whereas Jackson let us bask in these new discoveries, writer-director Chris Weitz (making his first solo film after co-directing American Pie and About a Boy with his brother Paul) shows little interest in such things. Jackson created a world, but Weitz settles for setpieces.The film races Lyra from one bit of jeopardy to the next, and she is usually bailed out by help that neither she nor we ever saw coming. At first this feels like a mere screenwriting cheat; when rescuers appear out of nowhere in one early scene and tell Lyra that they have been following her for days, you nod along even as you wonder why they didn’t help her slightly sooner, when it would have been less dramatic.
But by the end, Weitz is staging these scenes in ways that simply defy logic. A wide shot shows two groups of people, lined up against each other on a wide open field of ice and snow, with Lyra and the leader of the other group standing opposite each other in the middle. A handful of closer shots show the leader of the other group preparing to attack Lyra. And then, out of nowhere, someone arrives to save Lyra, and he’s standing right there and it’s meant to be a surprise even though you’d think his approach might have been noticed by someone on either side of the battle.
Also noteworthy is how the new film begins with a bit of narration by a witch named Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), which serves a function similar to that of the narration provided by the elf-queen Galadriel at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. Both of these characters are centuries old and can sense that a war is brewing which will bring the present age to an end — but where Galadriel mourned the passing of the past, Serafina looks forward to the future and to the “progress” it will bring.
And so we come to the film’s treatment of religion. Serafina says the coming war — which, in the second and third books, is revealed to be a war against the Judeo-Christian God — will bring an end to “destiny” and establish a new era of “free will.” What that means exactly is not spelled out, not in this movie, but we can get a sense of it from the fact that nearly all of this film’s villains work for the church-like Magisterium, which spends much of its time “telling people what to do.”
The filmmakers have been at pains lately to say that they toned down the book’s anti-religious content, and that may be true to the extent that the movie never uses words like “church” or “God.” But the word “magisterium” does refer, in the real world, to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and the film is still peppered with religiously significant words like “oblation” and “heresy,” as well as a cryptic reference to “our ancestors” who “disobeyed the Authority” — that is, to Adam and Eve and their disobedience against God in the Garden of Eden.
And when Iorek breaks into one of the Magisterium’s offices to retrieve his armor, he bursts through walls decorated with Byzantine icons — a potent symbol of how the bear, Lyra, and others are fighting to liberate themselves from church rule. Weitz has said he wants to make the next films more “iconoclastic,” so consider this bit of sacrilege a taste of what is yet to come — assuming New Line gets around to making the next two films in the trilogy.
Talk About It
1. When Lyra tries to “read” the alethiometer, Farder Coram tells her, “You mustn’t grasp at the answer. You must hold the question in your mind, but lightly, like it was something alive.” Is this principle applicable in our own lives? How does it compare to, say, the way we pray or seek guidance from God? What does it mean for a question to be “alive”? Is the answer “alive”?
2. What is the nature of “authority” within the Church? What role, if any, is there for pastors, elders, deacons, priests, bishops, etc.? How is the nature of leadership described in, say, the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus)? What should we do when leaders overstep their bounds? How can we know when they have done this?
3. What is the relationship between God’s authority and that of his followers? Why does Lord Asriel oppose the “Authority” — that is, the God — of his world? Many people in our world say they are spiritual or believe in God but they do not believe in organized religion or the Church; does anyone in the film believe in the “Authority” but not in the “Magisterium”? Would it make any sense for them to do so?
4. How does Lyra “master” her fear? How does Iorek model courage for her? How does she model it for him? Who has modeled courage in your life?
5. The leaders of the Magisterium say they are doing harmful things to children and others “for their own good.” Does the film really give you the impression that they believe this? Would it be more effective if it did or didn’t? When have you done things for someone else’s good that might not have been so good after all?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
The Golden Compass is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, none of which are particularly explicit, though a bear’s jaw is ripped off and, every time a human being dies, we see his or her daemon disintegrate in a puff of golden “dust.” Scientists perform cruel experiments on children and their daemons. A witch tells Lyra that one of the men helping them is a former lover of hers; and there are references to the possibility that Lyra may be the offspring of adultery. The villains of the film are also very thinly disguised members of a church-like organization which seeks to stamp out “heretics” and decorates its buildings with Christian icons. (For other “anti-religion” elements, read the full review above.)
— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.