Movie Review: The Golden Compass

That’s a lot to sort out.
–Roger

Title: The Golden Compass

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Written by Philip Pullman and Chris Weitz.
Directed by Chris Weitz.

Cast:

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Balacqua
Nicole Kidman as Ann Marisa Coulter1
Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel
Freddie Highmore as Pantalaimon (voice)
Ian McKellen as lorek Byrnison (voice)
Brian Walker as Roger
Ian McShane as Ragnar Sturlusson (voice)
Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala
Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby
Christopher Lee as First High Councilor

Full Cast and Crew

Premise:

Adapted from the first (and by many accounts, best) of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, this film tells the story of a adolescent girl in an alternate, magical earth who faces several challenges when she receives a device forbidden by the Magisterium, the Church which rules her world.

High Point:

The visuals sell this film. We have a fantasy world rooted not in the iconography of the Middle Ages or some other Anciente Tyme, but in the early twentieth century. Weitz and company have crafted a beautiful and believable environment.

The scenes with lorek and the other bears work very well, and I hope he’ll have more to do in the sequel.

Low Point:

The film has an excess of plot and characters and consequently, only Lyra really feels developed. Potentially fascinating scenes—the boy separated from his soul, for example—are thrown away. Nicole Kidman tries hard, but they haven’t given the opportunity for her to really show the kind of villain she’s playing.

And then there’s the ending. Pullman may not believe in God, but the storytellers have no problem with the deus ex machina.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. We have an adaptation of the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and it is a story influenced by others. Indeed, Pullman wrote the series in part as a response to the Narnia series. However, it is the first attempt to bring this material to the screen, and it has a fairly original look.

Story: 4/6. We have a lengthy, convoluted story, and a lengthy convoluted children’s story, at that. It could be told well in novel form. Here, it turns into a series of events, occasionally interrupted by expository dialogue which keeps the children up to date. One thing happens, and then another, and then another, and then we realize we’re watching a prologue.

Effects: 6/6. The visual effects are first-rate. Some of the CGI animals move rather quickly, but this will seem realistic until even better effects come along.

Acting. 5/6. The actors are good, though they’ve not been given the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities because, save for Richards, no one gets nearly enough screen time.

Production: 6/6.

Emotional Response: 4/6. The film has some excellent scenes, but it never fully engaged me, in part because of limited characterization.

Overall: 4/6.

In total, The Golden Compass receives a score of 32/42.

Additional Comments

I have not read the novels that inspired this film, so I cannot compare book with movie. The first novel, known both as Northern Lights and The Golden Compass, serves as the basis for this film and generally has received the best reviews. Some reviewers of the subsequent novels have criticized them for becoming pedantic and dogmatic. Does a more informed person have any views on these dark matters?

1. I know, the book first appeared in 1995 and the character’s name likely comes from the word for “cutter.” I just found it funny to see a blonde religious fanatic villain with this particular name.

8 replies on “Movie Review: The Golden Compass”

  1. chad says:

    Kidman
    SPOILER ALERT: I’m moving ahead into the other books here, so stop reading now if you aren’t familiar with the trilogy.

    The one thing I never got about Nicole Kidman’s character is that she was so evil in the first 2 1/2 books, but then she does an abrupt 180-degree turnaround at the end and sacrifices herself for a good cause. Any thoughts on this?

    ____________________
    Check out Chad’s News

    • Eldhrin says:

      Re: Kidman
      That’s entirely consistent as you discover more about her motivations and past though.

      She wanted to get Lyra to come and live with her because she’s Lyra’s mother and wanted to raise her daughter properly (as she saw it). She was going to rescue Lyra from Bolvangar for the same reasons. Ultimately, after meeting Asriel again and discovering that she still loves him, and realising just what the Church intended to do to their daughter, she sacrifices herself to do what she’s been doing on and off all the way through the books: save Lyra.

      You probably don’t agree with her methods (I don’t!) but her intentions, I thought, were fairly clear and it’s not a particularly abrupt turnaround (although remains ambiguous for some time to add extra dramatic tension).

      I’ve not seen the film yet, but I’m not particularly inclined to bother after the reviews I’ve seen. It doesn’t sound like they’ve done particularly good justice to the book (it even ends in a different place, and I don’t recall any deus ex machina in the book – what happens at the end of the movie?) and the next two are going to be a lot harder, I think.

      • chad says:

        Re: Kidman

        I’ve not seen the film yet, but I’m not particularly inclined to bother after the reviews I’ve seen. It doesn’t sound like they’ve done particularly good justice to the book (it even ends in a different place, and I don’t recall any deus ex machina in the book – what happens at the end of the movie?) and the next two are going to be a lot harder, I think.

        I’m thinking that they’re going to lose enough money on this project (cost about $200 million) that they won’t make the other two.

      • Timeshredder says:

        Re: Kidman

        I’ve not seen the film yet, but I’m not particularly inclined to bother after the reviews I’ve seen. It doesn’t sound like they’ve done particularly good justice to the book (it even ends in a different place, and I don’t recall any deus ex machina in the book – what happens at the end of the movie?)

        It’s as much a matter of presentation. We know that the bear is on Lyra’s side and has promised to return to her, so his appearance makes sense. We’ve met Sarafina– though just in passing. There’s no character development whatsoever, so her motives and abilities remain somewhat vague. We’ve been introduced to Scoresby though, again, despite a fine performance, we know almost nothing about him.

        At the critical moment, all return, Sarafina with a battalion of witches, to do battle with the Cosack-looking soldiers whom the movie has established are on the side of the Magisterium but whom we’ve not see doing anything particularly menacing. No doubt the book sets this up effectively, but here it plays as, "and then a bunch of heroes whom we’ve been given no reason to care about arrive and wage war against some villains who are of no consequence and then we realize this has all been a set-up for another movie which I’m likely not going to see ’til it appears on video."

      • Fozzy_Bear says:

        Re: Kidman


        I’ve not seen the film yet, but I’m not particularly inclined to bother after the reviews I’ve seen.

        Oh, let’s not get too overly dramatic about this…

        This is a children’s movie with a neat (and 100% original – in a movie) plot device and fantastic visuals. Top that off by a few top-notch performers and you’ve got a delightful movie.

        Sure, there are people out there that love the book and gripe about the movie… but there always are. (except possibly about Peter Jackson’s work… but I’m not gonna bash a movie ’cause it isn’t LOTR)

        I have never read the book, and my "books to read" list is longer than my remaining life-expectancy, so I most likely never will. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying the movie.

        It’s a fine movie.

        It’s not in the league of LOTR, nor "The Shawshank Redemption". It’s not even "the Big Chill". But it IS an entertaining ride… as long as your level of expectation is set right.

        The only reason I’m gonna wait til video for the next one is the a$$ hat in the row in front of me that had not one, but two cell phone calls during the movie.

        – just my opinion, I could be wrong.

        • Tekzel says:

          Re: Kidman

          Oh, let’s not get too overly dramatic about this…

          I agree with everything said here, well except the waiting till the next one comes out on video, I enjoy going to the theater and choose to go at a time when its mostly empty to avoid said asshats mostly :)

          It was a good movie. In a perfect world, they would have split this first one into 2 movies so they could properly tell the tale, there just wasn’t enough time to do everything they SHOULD have done. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world and they knew there would be a shitstorm of controversy over it and couldn’t bank on being able to make a second one. Which is sad, some religious people (catholics…) can sure talk all the trash they want about everyone else’s belief (or non) but if someone even DARES to suggest the catholic church is a monolithic beast that lost its way a millennium ago, and has no chance of ever recovering, well… they are just evil, right?

          Dispite what the religious wackos out there are screaming about, the movie won’t turn your youth into god hating demons, and the movie is good and entertaining, if a bit rushed. I certainly enjoyed it.

          • Timeshredder says:

            Re:ligion

            Despite what the religious wackos out there are screaming about, the movie won’t turn your youth into god hating demons, and the movie is good and entertaining, if a bit rushed. I certainly enjoyed it.

            The anti-religious element is present, but softened enough by Hollywood that most younger viewers will see the Magisterium only as the Bad Guys. Devout Christians may be taken aback by hearing Coulter make a veiled but clear-enough reference to the Doctrine of Original Sin. Of course, for a segment of that audience, the fact of good witches will be enough of a blasphemy to keep them from the theater. Another segment may see the religious elements that remain as something to engage and debate (I know Christians who read the novel in that way).

            And yeah, there are reasons to see it in the theater: the effects and visuals.

  2. octa says:

    Bleh
    Garbage. Plain and simple. They ended it earlier than the first book, which in my opinion, had an excellent cliff hanger.

    I have to give it to them, when I saw the trailer I was wondering how they would get around all the anti-religious stuff but they did a good job of neutering that. I don’t know how the hell they’re going to pull it off for the 2nd and especially 3rd movies if they ever get made though. I mean the 3rd book is almost completely about a war with “heaven.”

    Is consensus really that the first book is the best? I found the Subtle Knife(book 2) to be an excellent work of fiction and by far better than the first or 3rd books. It felt a lot like Empire Strikes Back in its pacing, plot twists, and emotional resonance.

Comments are closed.