A UNIVERSE MUCH UNLIKE OUR OWN
by Kevin Bowen
published December 10, 2007
now playing in movie theaters
If nothing else, The Golden Compass brings its viewers into its own little CGI universe.
Talking polar bears rule the arctic. Fleets of witches rule the skies. Some golden glitter called dust runs through the universe. Each human owns
a supernatural animal companion called a daemon, which allegedly represents the soul.
There are unwashed types known as Gyptians, an oppressive religious order known as the Magisterium, and a batch of child thieves called … oh,
something. And Sam Elliott shows off what he does when he’s not hanging around a bowling alley.
If all of this confuses you, you’re in luck. If you choose to watch this LOTR, Harry Potter-ish CGI epic, the characters will
explain this to you again. And again. And again. Every time a new figure shows up, they will spout some long-winded backstory. Even the talking
polar bears get in on the act. Otherwise, why would they need to talk? Watching The Golden Compass is a little like being a kid sitting
around the living room as parents and grandparents relive the old times.
Some of that is merely an inelegant necessity, born of a desire to fertilize a box-office hit out of Philip Pullman’s controversial His Dark
Materials book series. For a film generating so much heat in the news, with Christian groups denouncing it as an atheistic attack on
traditional religion, it doesn’t generate the same heat on screen. The Golden Compass is roughly one crafty girl and one cool polar bear
fight from pointing due south.
That’s not the fault of Daniel Craig, who in his too short screen time shows the screen command that made him James Bond. As Lord Asrial, a
university professor in this strange, theocratic world, his free-thinking ways attract the attention of the nefarious Magisterium. As Asrial
heads north to examine a strange phenomenon with religious implications, the ice storm that is Lady Coulter (Nicole Kidman) seduces his scrappy
kid niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) into her circle. The Magisterium sends forces to stop the professor.
Soon, Lyra wiggles out of Coulter’s clutches, befriends a band of Gyptians and a defrocked polar bear king, and moves north to save her uncle.
She carries a golden compass that tells the truth about the past, present, and future. She’s the only one in the entire universe who knows how to
When I watch a film like this, I don’t think much about the CGI. With the dollars invested, you should expect it to be solid. The first thing I
consider is what I call the “Harry Potter” rule. Does the lead character show pluck? Or does that person wait for other people or luck to solve
the problems? Lyra’s resourcefulness is the best element of the film. I mean, naturally, excluding bear-on-bear combat.
The second question is whether the film has anything particularly interesting or original to say to children. I don’t think so. It encourages
children to question authority. A well, good, and necessary part of growing up, to be sure. But the story is missing a great deal of the richness
of the human fabric.
The reason is that the playing field is so slanted. The strength of creating a fantasy world is that you get to unmask the real one. The weakness
is that you risk tilting things too far to your point of view. The Golden Compass has not the nuanced delicacy of the world I inhabit, but
rather too much of the flat paranoia of its creator. For that reason, I think it’s pointed in the wrong direction.
kevinbowen @ stageandcinema.com