Review: The Golden Compass

Coming out of the cinema hall after almost 2 and a half hours of The Golden Compass, and spending almost half of that time watching the Coca-Cola bear kicking CGI butt on screen (good to see he has found a new job), my concluding judgment of this movie is strictly not so golden. My likings for it is harshly muted, as so much potential can be see on screen and yet it fails to deliver in a big way. While watching the movie, you get the feeling that it is almost there, and yet not quite there: the movie roars, then it snores. The movie wakes up again in fits of excitement, and then it suddenly takes a nap. The movie soars back into life, and it just ends. Now you get my point?

But what is indeed interesting and distinctive from other fantasy novels is that Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy of books has a shadow of controversy shrouding it. As in the words of Cynthia Grenier from the ‘Catholic Culture’:

“In the world of Pullman, God Himself (namely The Authority) is a merciless tyrant, His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both.”

Indeed, Pullman himself confesses, taken from

“I don’t process any religion; I don’t think it is possible that there is a God; I have the greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’.”

Oh dear. An agnostic and atheist writing children books for the mass public. Certainly the most dangerous author in Great Britain indeed.

And horror of all horrors, he openly describes his books as “about killing God”, i.e. the annihilation of God Himself, and “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” For ‘The Da Vinci Code’ haters, eat your heart out. Worst still, the Pullman books are marketed to the mass public as children books, and hence, it is indoctrinating kids into anti-Christian beliefs and is selling atheism to unbeknownst children. Dear parents, do you know what your children are really reading?

But fairness be told, some viewers see Pullman’s materials as more of anti-authoritarian and anti-ascetic rather and anti-religion, as “his fundamental objection is to the ideological tyranny and the rejection of the world in favor of an idealized afterlife, regardless of creed.” I think of it as more of anti-control than anti-religion, as Pullman is upholding the notion of a choice to live the world: your choice, rather than any religious establishments’ paradigms on how life should be lived. The teachings of your religion should only be your guide, not your solitary road through life. I think that it is the oppression of choice from certain extreme religious establishments that Pullman encourages to conflict rather than to simply ‘kill God’ and over-throw Christianity to be absolute atheists. But that’s just my unpretentious view. Consider what Pullman says when being asked the question of his motives:

"the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives…[but] churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god… and done terrible damage…. That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy."

Anyway back to my opinion of the movie. As mentioned ‘The Golden Compass’ is the first in the trilogy of fantasy fiction novels which also includes ‘The Subtle Knife’ and ‘The Amber Spyglass’ respectively. So, being the first of the three, many foundations need to the laid and various infrastructures need to be established for this fantasy epic to really take off in the up-coming 2nd and 3rd parts. But with so many issues and subject matter left hanging in the end of this 1st installment, I am extremely skeptical to re-join the journey in the 2nd movie, not even feeling bothered about its climatic trilogy ending, as I find no kindred feeling for its main characters, the plot and its world in general as the movie fails to establish any sense of emotional association between the viewer and the material on screen. What with ‘The Lord of the Rings’ achieved with Frodo and Samwise Gamgee, ‘The Golden Compass’ fails in this respect: I am honestly not bothered about who lives or dies or how it all will end. I’m sure this poignant thought will be shared by many viewers and this will have a severe negative influence on the box-office performance and on the future of the 2nd and 3rd movies that is yet to be filmed.

That said, there is still a little left to be admired in this movie, such as the lush and elegant world that was created on screen. Gorgeous visuals fill the screen in every corner and turn, vivid colors and lavish set designs depicting worlds not our own perplex you with contentment. From images of Jordan College to the icy terrains of the kingdom of the armored bears, they are imageries not yet seen before on screen and what a sight it is to behold.

The acting is also well done, from the main players such as Nicole Kidman as the devilish but seductive Ms. Coulter was performed to villainously high esteem. Daniel Craig has little to do in this film, but from what limited time he has, he takes advantage of it to great aplomb and relishes in his role as Lord Asriel. Sam Elliot, playing the role as aeronaut Lee Scoresby, pops up just at the right moments to almost steal the limelight and Eva Green, performing as the witch Serafina Pekkala is commendable. However, the one that stole the show is not from any established actor but newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as the lead character, Lyra Balacqua. She was the energy that pushed the acting performing force in this film and she held remarkably well against her more illustrious adult superstars. Much will be expected from the up-coming two sequels.

With so many scrumptious performances, credit has to be given to the relatively new-comer as a director in Mr. Chris Weitz. It is such a big shoe to fill as he needs to take on the controversy of anti-Christianity surrounding this dark material, the momentous risks he needs to juggle as the content may not suit everyone and hence may affect the box-office performance and last but not least, to meet the expectations of fans that has been so religiously loyal to the novels. In the end, it was a commendable effort but considering the problems that are mentioned earlier, the film is neither here nor there as many issues are left hanging, Therefore, it fails to satisfy and at the end of ‘The Golden Compass’ you will just get the feeling that the this will be a long journey and it’s a journey that you will not want to tag along…

Verdict: 6 / 10

Reiewed by: Raymond Choy

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