The Golden Compass
2007 – Chris Weitz
PG-13: 113 mins Vault Rating: 7
There was an extremely well orchestrated hit job put on today’s feature, “The Golden Compass,” ostensibly by some misguided souls who fear the messages foiled in a film. The several emails I received warning me not to see it or allow my children to see it were mostly concerned that the book’s author, Philip Pullman, was an atheist and that in his story the children kill God.
This fantastic story and reality do align in that the agents of intolerance are at work in both. To be sure, Pullman vilifies the church, embodied here by a medieval sort of religio-political entity called “the magisterium.” This shadowy group is covertly abducting children, usually of the lower castes, and removing them to a remote land where an experiment called “intercission” is being perfected upon them.
Intercission could be described as either the removal of the soul, or perhaps as the surgical removal of free will, or – by extension – the eradication of original sin, a fantastic notion that we were excited about when the film was announced and which gets at the core of faith in general. We were excited about the possibility of an adventure film with a philosophical heft, curious as to how deep and dark the filmmakers would go.
Regardless, the dichotomy between faith and science – so relevant in today’s America – neatly sets the table, cleanly identifying evil and good alike. Our champions, then, are for science: the mysterious Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is onto a scientific discovery that would undermine the magisterium, and little Lyra Belacqua, an orphan of some importance (Aren’t they all, in literature?) who is the subject of some prophecy.
The world in which they move is one Jules Verne could scarcely have imagined. It is a mish-mash of old and new, scientific and mythic, familiar and unfamiliar forms. But the chief conceit of the story, and the idea that rattled so many rosaries in our new media, is that of the “daemon.”
Pronounced “demon,” the device gives an outward, animalistic expression to each character’s soul. A child’s daemon is interestingly changeable, say from a ferret to a butterfly or a cat. Upon maturity, a character’s daemon becomes fixed, so that you needn’t guess who the weasels and the insects in the story really are. The daemon is a novel way to read the soul of the person, a nice device to convey information to the viewer parenthetical to the action.
Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is one of those rare and wonderful characters; the strong female lead. She’s being raised as the ward of an old-world British – I’d say London, specifically. – college and she is given the shiny artifact of the film’s title, an “alethiometer,” literally a moral compass, which somehow only she can read.
Custody of Lyra falls to the evil (we know it because her avatar is a golden monkey, curious and threatening) Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who is a powerful emissary of the magisterium.
But after the “gobbling” of some of Lyra’s local playmates, Lyra escapes from Mrs. Coulter and a chase ensues that takes us to the arctic circle. There we meet, among other things, gyptians, aeronauts, witches and armored polar bears. Bear #1 is the outcast Iorek Byrnison. Said bear is strange to look at because he cuts the perfect image of one of the luvable teevee commercial Coca-Cola bears, only voiced by the weighty Ian McKellen.
Lyra attempts to reintegrate Iorek to his community, free children from the ice-bound labs of the magisterium and chase to the heart of the philosophical conundrum, “dust,” as it is embodied in the northern lights. The secret of “dust” is central to the story and would doubtless play through a second and possibly third film.
What follows today’s film, in Pullman’s books anyway – I’m currently in the middle of the second of the series – is a story about “world jumping.” Imagine if there were worlds other than these. In fact, one could almost surely count on little Lyra actually visiting “our” world.
Here is one voice which, having found that the film didn’t go as dark as I would have liked, would still like very much to see the sequel. Today’s film alone leaves you at a necessary crossroads and we’re obviously pulled deeper in. Still, today’s film, standing on its own, is a treat for the eyes and a solid adventure-fantasy.
Are the children going to eventually “kill God,” as the viral emails I’ve received warn? I don’t know. It seems as though the filmmakers have dulled that point considerably. But I can tell you that “The Golden Compass” is a fun piece of cinema. Rent it and bring the kids.