Movie Review: The Golden Compass

by Ryan on December 8, 2007

in Culture,Pop Culture,Religion

I’ve just seen  New Line Cinema’s The Golden Compass, based on the 1995 book Northern Lights by Philip Pullman.  It’s part one of “His Dark Materials” trilogy.  Apparently, the publishers, thinking that a golden compass on the front cover would confuse American kids if its name stayed Northern Lights, simply changed its name to The Golden Compass (a similar thing happened with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone– what the heck is a “philosopher” to an American kid, but we sure know what a “Sorcerer” is!).

I went to see this film because of the buzz.  Apparently, its author is an atheist, letting some of his biases into the story which has become a shiny new movie kids will love and Catholic groups will hate.  Though Catholic, I had to see it for myself.  For a movie filled with the kid-appeal of Narnia and Harry Potter, wrapped up in Lord of the Rings-style special effects, I understand why Hollywood would drool at the idea of a kid’s-story with an anti-religious bias!  It just fits their paradigm. 

However, is this movie really anti-Catholic? 

Yup.  I think you really have to stretch to argue the other way on this one.

Don’t get me wrong, I went for entertainment and analysis, plus even I’m a grown adult sometimes and can make my own spiritual decisions.  However, the “Magisterium” is quite analogous to the Catholic Church– at least Hollywood culture’s stereotype of pre-Reformation Catholicism:  the members dress like clergy, they have a totalitarian view of the world, a distrust of human nature, the first member we meet tries to kill a sympathetic character who revealed too much “truth,” the plot’s premise was obviously analogous to a battle between science (the good guys) and religion (the bad guys), the members of the “Magisterium” are all white people, devious, shallow and spiteful, victimizing everyone they can, and they have headquarters that look stunningly like St. Peter’s in Rome!  Sounds like the standard Hollywood stereotype of Catholicism!

Aside from that ridiculous in-your-face anti-religious bias, there is a plot.  They put it out there early that there are many parallel universes, some where our souls are inside us, some where our souls exists outside of us (as “daemons”), and some where souls may not exist.  The movie quickly sucks you into its adventure, the characters are easy to figure out (witches, kick-ass polar bears, kossacks, Gyptians who are a lot like gypsies, go figure), there’s lots of action, and it obviously leaves the door open for a sequel.  “Dust” is this stuff that apparently connects the universes and may have something to do with souls.  The “Magisterium” obviously hates the stuff, but our science heroes embrace it.

It was well acted, with the voice of Ian McKellan (Gandalf from LOTR) as the polar bear, Iorek, and a cameo from Christopher Lee (who’s been Dracula, Count Dooku, and Saruman, etc.) as an insidious “Magisterium” member (of course).  The girl Lyra, played quite well by Dakota Blue Richards, is likable, adventurous and somehow charmed.  There are a lot of unresolved conflicts in the plot, leading us to anticipate what might come next in the two sequels.  I even heard a kid loudly say, “What?! That’s it?  I was just getting into it!”  Yet, it reminded me of seeing the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix– they had to compress so much, would someone who never read the book actually understand the movie?  I could follow Compass, but I’m sure true believers and fans would have problems with it.

In the end, I can see why the Church would be upset at this film’s story and stereotypes.  There’s an anti-religious bigotry in this film that can easily trump its entertainment value.  I feel guilty liking the movie even superficially, but as a Catholic I’m used to our culture’s distrust of Catholics, so I didn’t get hung up on it.  You may not be able to, though.  Yet, Harry Potter didn’t turn kids onto Wicca, and Compass is not going to turn kids onto atheism, but parents: just be aware of what your kids are watching.

Oh yeah, and to top it all off, Nicole Kidman’s deranged “Magisterium” character happens to be named “Mrs. Coulter!”  Ha!

AP photo.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike December 8, 2007 at 5:45 pm

Mrs. Coulter? In her dreams.

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Reynvaan December 9, 2007 at 11:11 pm

As for the portrayal of the Catholic church, as pre-Reformation, it most certainly is. Though omitted from the film, the book mentions that the story takes place in an alternate universe in which the Reformation never took place, and John Calvin was a Pope. The seat of the Magisterium is actually located in Geneva, Calvin’s ‘base of operations’.

And yeah the ending, sadly, was very disappointing. They actually cut off the last 2 or 3 chapters from the book and decided to stick them onto the next film (though readers of the books will notice from clips in the latest trailer that the final scenes were filmed and the special effects finished).

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Susu September 12, 2014 at 2:53 pm

Dear lord, what a mess the makers and writers made out of this film.

It started off interesting with hope then very quickly it descended into a mess of re-written scripts TOTALLY different to the book. The scenes themselves looked beautiful but everything else after that was a complete mess. Plots were left unexplained, the reasons for many, many characters existents and actions were not even explained or touched on

as well as their very actions being completely changed or invented

totally from thin air! You were left wondering many a time “why is this happening” – “who did that happen?” – “what has this got to do with the story” – what the heck is going on?” and “would someone please explain why ALL of the characters are doing what they are doing? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg…

The makers of this film TOTALLY took a meat cleaver to the story. Cut huge and I mean HUGE chunks out, totally twisted scenes around to an unbelievable extent, let characters live that actually die, NEVER explained backgrounds of anything! Leaving out the fact that they rewrote the whole book and made a complete shambles of it, just as a non-reader, many have commented to me in the cinema, on the way out and afterward to this present day (June 2008) the equivalent of “you could tell they pulled the good guts out of it”.

Dear god, if your going to make a film from a book, stick with the book or make up one of your own completely. Don’t waste our time and your own by buying the rights to a book and then ripping it to shreds and sticking it back together again in an unintelligible mess. What is the point of buying the rights to a book in the first place if your going to totally re-write it (and screw it up in the process too to boot)?

I understand that the makers were spineless and cowered to the religious nuts by removing anything that made any intelligence to those with brains. The effect of this cowardice left behind a film that was a total waste of time, an insult to the original writer of the book and a waste of talent that should have been used better in a greater film than this mixed, unexplained unmitigated disaster.

If there is going to be sequels and going by this film, I hope to all heavens there is NOT – can we the audience have a change of makers, scriptwriters and a producer, a director with a brain and at least someone with guts to stand up against the zealous religious right.

To sum up: what a complete mess and waste of talent.

This film could have been so, so so much better.

Rating: one out of ten.

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