Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Alethiometers, Ice Bears, and Daemons, Oh My!

Expressing anti-religious (not anti-spiritual!) sentiments in child-oriented films is a tough and hazardous stream to navigate. Miraculously, director Chris Weitz and crew have found a balance of dangerous social commentary and fantastical thrills in “The Golden Compass.” The film, although diminishing the anti-religiosity of Phillip Pullman’s 1995 novel, maintains its anti-authoritarian convictions without becoming overly preachy (get it?).

For those who aren’t acquainted with the source material (myself included), “The Golden Compass” traces the exciting path of a young girl, named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), as she finds herself deep within a power struggle between the authoritarian, conservative Majesterium (an entity VERY similar to the Catholic Church) and a renegade group of intellectuals seeking to understand the nature of “dust” (I’ll let you figure out what it symbolizes) by toying with some aurora up north and maneuvering around with a golden compass, or alethiometer, which enables anyone who can read it (basically, children, having the almighty innocence necessary) access to the direct truth. The Majesterium fears public access to truth (imagine that) and seeks to co-opt the golden compass, which has found its way into young Lyra’s hands by way of her gallivanting uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is the spearhead of the intellectual “dust” movement. Following her tense, repressive stay with the icy Majesterium representative, Ms. Coulter (helluva last name), who attempts to surreptitiously capture Lyra, employing her as an “assistant” for her travels to the north, Lyra begins a quest, using the alethiometer, to solve a recent string of kidnappings in which many of her friends have been taken and which may or man not involve Ms. Coulter. All of these figures, of course, dwell in a parallel universe to ours, as the opening narration clarifies, where people wear their souls on the outside. These souls, called “daemons” are represented as animals that can talk and interact with others and that have a voodoo-doll-like relationship with their respective humans. If a person’s corresponding daemon is killed, they die, and vice-versa.

The imagination illuminating the source material is fantastic and the film thrives from having such an excellent and well-crafted mythology to explore. The CGI animals in the film are particularly astounding as wonderful examples of literary imagination turned into cinematic reality. The daemons in the film are impressive, especially the children’s daemons, as they are still shifting since the souls of the children haven’t settled yet. Lyra’s daemon, named Pan (short for Pantalaimon), morphs interchangeably between a ferret, a cat, a mouse, and a sparrow – maintaining an incredible amount of cuteness, no doubt a result of Freddie Highmore’s endearing vocal work. When watching the film, one is left desiring a daemon of his/her own, a steadfast friend who is cute and cuddly. It’s a marvelous concept. Likewise, the ice bears in “The Golden Compass” present a visual feast. The ice bears are gigantic polar bears that live in the artic regions. Keeping with the incredibly imaginative nature of the source material, the ice bears talk and have a complex, warlike society in which status is gained through armored combat. One ice bear, a dethroned and exiled former prince named Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellan) who has turned to alcoholism and is quite the curmudgeon, encounters Lyra on her journey and is eventually led back to the ice bear kingdom, where he challenges the bear (yes, they all have Scandinavian names) who took his throne, Ragnar Sturlusson (Ian McShane). Their battle scene is a triumph of CGI and is one of the ballsiest sequences I have ever seen in a child-oriented film, featuring an incredibly grisly finale.

Acting-wise, the film is very strong, led by the performances of Nicole Kidman as the complex Ms. Coulter and the effortless magnificence of Sam Elliott as the Wild West-styled aeronaut (person who flies around in a badass ship) named Lee Scorseby. Kidman’s character is certainly the richest in the film and her depth increases as the film progresses, creating a very torn, confused individual who simultaneously evokes terror and sympathy. Kidman is pitch-perfect in the role, exuding the cold confidence and calm ruthlessness that matches the character’s stark blue eyes and immaculate appearance. Sam Elliott practically IS his character, a wise old cowboy whose goodhearted smile and caring eyes guide Lyra with a soft-spoken paternal influence. Just as in “The Big Lebowski,” Elliott finds a way to fill the screen with an ineffable warmth that feels like Christmas.

The major problem “The Golden Compass” has is the massive impact that the compression of the novel for cinematic translation has on the film’s pacing. Many sequences feel rushed and compacted, with information glossed over and emotions unearned. This is probably a result of having to shrink all of the information from a 400ish page book into a two-hour film that is viable at the box office. Also, the elimination of many more blatantly anti-religious aspects of the novel no doubt has an influence on the awkwardly rushed narrative. The effect of this is quite obtrusive and one may feel a little cheated by ending, which seems forced. However, considering that the actual ending of the novel, which is quite substantial, is left out, probably so as not to offend Catholics and such, it would be nearly impossible to have created a logical ending that felt correct. I would love to see an extended edit of the film, maybe with an extra 30 minutes or so, which includes the ending and probably some significant deleted scenes.

The theoretical “The Golden Compass: Director’s Cut” would surely rock my world and while the version in theaters now is certainly adequate and in some instances brilliant, it is lacking the proper pacing and narrative cohesion that Phillip Pullman’s novel has.

by Brandon Colvin


Anonymous said...

This review may well be better than the one that the Village Voice has. Or at least I prefer it.

Brandon Colvin said...

Damn. That's one hell of a comment. Thanks