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  The Golden Compass

Starring: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Produced by: Deborah Forte, Bill Carraro

Written by: Chris Weitz

Distributor: New Line Cinema

Note: Because many have vocalized concern over the questionable religious themes in this film, I have decided to respond to them in a future editorial. This review discounts the influence that source author Philip Pullman’s atheism may have had on the film-adaptation, mainly because I don’t think it plays a significant role in the film itself. What is potentially concerning is the fact that
The Golden Compass might inspire the young audience that New Line Cinema has unfortunately targeted to read the reportedly anti-Christian source-novel.

     Remember those mini-series you’d find on obscure cable-channels as a kid (this, of course, presuming that you grew up in the last twenty years, as I did) that would captivate the heck out of you and even occasionally boggle your mind, only to end with the dreaded phrase “To be continued...”? Remember the feeling of disappointment that accompanied this epiphany – the knowledge that you might be forced to wait a whole week to find a sense of resolution?

     This is the exact feeling that viewers will leave The Golden Compass with… only this time, they will have paid ten dollars to feel cheated by it and will have to wait years to see the plot resolved. It is no secret that writer/director Chris Weitz left the original ending to the film, an adaptation of the first novel in author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, on the cutting room floor in order to provide the proposed sequel a captivating opening and a built-in audience. But the fact that he did this in such a forced, hackneyed way is inexcusable. The Golden Compass raises a lot of questions and introduces a lot of mysterious characters, and provides hardly any answers come its conclusion. It feels as if Weitz and distributor New Line Cinema are holding the viewer hostage, demanding that they recommend the movie to all of their friends so that it makes enough money to merit the planned sequel.

     To a certain extent, the fact that I am enraged about The Golden Compass lacking a clear ending is healthy. After all, it does show that I liked the characters and the story enough to care about what happened to them. But The Lord of the Rings this is not; Weitz’ choice to end the film at the place that he does displays not a need to halt the story at a natural breaking point in order to maximize the series’ content. The move only represents an act of artistic unkindness and commercial greed on the parts of both he and New Line.

     Part of me wants to advise that filmgoers skip The Golden Compass altogether to spare themselves of the undeniable frustration that the movie’s undercooked finish brings. Still, doing so would only reap them of what could be a magical, intriguing cinematic trilogy. Even though dishing out the price of admission plays directly into New Line’s marketing strategy, I recommend that everyone go out and see The Golden Compass so that Weitz has the proper chance to make the other two films in the His Dark Materials trilogy. There is clear potential in this first film, and I would hate to let it go to waste. In essence, I don’t like this film as a standalone, but I could certainly see myself becoming an ardent admirer if it belonged to a greater, more complete whole. As much as it may frustrate you, The Golden Compass will prove itself worth seeing if it is a success.

     For now, one can at least seek mild satisfaction in knowing that all of the players are in place and ready to tackle a plot more focused than the one found in The Golden Compass. The action takes place in foreign universe that operates much like Earth but has a few noticeable differences. The main difference is that humans in this universe do not have conventional souls. Instead, they are accompanied by daemons, animal extensions of their souls. One of said humans is protagonist Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young orphan attending Jordan College at the wish of her Uncle, the powerful adventurer and scientist Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Asriel is as hated as he is admired; in fact, a group opposing his career-efforts attempts to poison him early on in the film.

     The Golden Compass’ core-plot involves a slew of government-secrets (held by the so-called “Magesterium”) that Lyra finds herself desperate to figure out. These are interwoven in a highly complicated manner, but they are unified by the fact that they all concern a mysterious substance known as Dust, which children are not supposed to know about. This Dust is the controversial item of Asriel’s research in the Arctic Circle. It is also involved in the malicious, top-secret practices of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a Magesterium-figurehead who visits Lyra’s university. Claiming to know Asriel, Mrs. Coulter takes Lyra to the Arctic Circle on what she claims will be a charming adventure. Meanwhile, Lyra’s best friend, Roger (Ben Walker), is kidnapped by a covert organization known only as the “Gogglers.”

     The story is told from Lyra’s perspective, meaning that the viewer does not figure out many of the key secrets involved in the plot. Many revelations are delivered with heart-stopping suspense, such as when Lyra violently discovers that Mrs. Coulter may not be the compassionate adventurer that she lets on. Also very intriguing is a moment in which Lyra realizes that she is able to see the Truth in the titular Golden Compass (technically called an "alethiometer"), which she is given by the Master of Jordan.

     And all of that is just the tip of the iceberg, mere setup for battle-sequences that come in The Golden Compass’ second-half. Said sequences are handled in an often-riveting manner by Weitz, seamlessly incorporating live-action and CGI. (All of the daemons in the film are computer-generated, as are the polar bears, characters who I have not described but who play an essential role in the film’s second and third acts.) As expertly handled as the action is, however, I couldn’t help but realize how much more exciting and aesthetically-appealing it would’ve been had the film been done in the motion-capture-style of Robert Zemeckis’ recent Beowulf. This not only would have provided the movie a more uniform look; it also would’ve allowed it to be more cheaply made.

     I should also mention that the cast, for the most part, does a terrific job in crafting roles that could’ve easily become trivialized given the film’s emphasis on external plot rather than character-development. As Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards makes for a sympathetic heroine, allowing the audience to tap into her point-of-view of the events that unfold. Nicole Kidman makes for a terrifically devious nemesis, coldly creating a real sense of dread in the activities of the Magesterium through her character. Daniel Craig doesn’t have a whole lot of screen-time, but in the small bit of the film that he does appear, he is able to make Asriel seem fittingly heroic and intriguing. In addition, Freddie Highmore and Ian McKellen turn in some nice voice-work, respectively, as Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon and Lyra’s polar bear guardian Iorek Byrnison.

     Reading over this review, I realize that most of what I have written about The Golden Compass is overwhelmingly positive. I also realize that, if sequels to the film were already finished (as was the case The Lord of the Rings), my reaction to its poor ending would likely be muted. Still, I just can’t find it in my conscience to give The Golden Compass a higher rating than the one that I have. As it is, this is a wonderful movie with a horribly disappointing conclusion, one in which Weitz exploits everything he works so hard to achieve during the bulk of the duration. As I said before: I recommend the film to viewers, even if they aren’t necessarily going to like it. Trivial and artistically-childish as the notion may seem, I am willing to encourage just about any effort that will allow The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, the final two films in the His Dark Materials trilogy, to be made.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 12.6.2007

Screened on: 12.1.2007 at the UltraStar Del Mar Highlands 8 in Del Mar, CA.

The Golden Compass is rated PG-13 and runs 113 minutes.

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