The Golden Compass

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I went to see The Golden Compass with Heidi last night. We were initially put off by the low score on Rotten Tomatoes, but decided to see it anyway. I think it was well worth it, and I’m genuinely surprised by the low average score after watching the movie.

Here’s the preview:

I get the feeling that a lot of the reviewers were predisposed to giving it a low score due to the apparant controversy surrounding the film. For example, the Christian Science Monitor review is incredibly brief, and it doesn’t even get the story right (the protagonist doesn’t travel “into a parallel universe ruled by armor-plated polar bears and ‘daemons'”) which makes me wonder if they even saw the film. Most highly critical reviews seem to open with a discussion of the apparant anti-religious sentiment rather than the movie itself, which is a bad sign.

I enjoyed the film visually and thematically. The steam punk style was very well executed and the actors were exceptionally well cast. Thematically, it was much more mature than I was expecting. There appears to be a recent resurgence of children’s fantasy epics (starting with the Lord of The Rings films) and I usually find them to be rather shallow entertainment. I haven’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy, upon which The Golden Compass is based, but I could never get into The Lord of the Rings (which I read) or The Chronicles of Narnia books (I read the first few books) because I found them very basic. In contrast, The Golden Compass dealt with complex themes.

To me, The Lord of Rings had no real depth. It felt like it was written by someone more concerned with locations and timelines (and related minute details) than themes or characters. I know it’s subjective, but it’s not really my type of book. I actually enjoyed the films much more. Probably because the director couldn’t delve into every elfin song and the small environmental details were seamlessly visually and aurally presented (rather than laboriously explained).

I also never understood the appeal of The Chronicles or Narnia. The story was far too infantile and escapist to appeal to me. The characters were very one-dimensional and it treated the quest for power, the consequences of war, and death very lightly (almost trivially). Seriously, the film has Father Christmas give the kids weapons so that they can kill their enemies in battle. He also gives Lucy some magical liquid that she uses to revive fallen comrades (while happily prancing around the battlefield with a stupid grin on her face). I found the entire concept deplorable; shouldn’t children be reticent to kill and aghast at a field full of the dead and dying?

Anyhow, back onto The Golden Compass. The story takes place entirely in a parallel steam punk world where people’s souls live outside of their bodies and manifest as animal companions called daemons. Lord Asriel has discovered proof that there are parallel worlds and that daemons can act as a sort of conduit between people and “dust”, which is what connects parallel worlds. The ruling authority, called the Magistarium, doesn’t want the general population to know about dust (or anything else subversive) and works to prevent Asriel from proving its existence. The main character is Lyra, Lord Asriel’s niece, and her commitment to making her own decisions and finding the truth drives the storyline.

I don’t want to give much else away, but I’ll try to explain in general what I liked about the film. The film is very anti-establishment (anti-facist really) and seems to do everything possible to empower groups that are often disempowered or neglected (in society and common literature). Following are a few examples. The poor, dirty, low-class Gyptians are the good people, and the upper class Magistarium are morally bankrupt. Traditionally negative terms are used for positive elements: A person’s soul is called a daemon, witches are compassionate creatures, and heresy is used to describe seeking the truth.

Women are well-represented in the story. Examples include: wise witches, a strong protagonist, and a strong antagonist. Children are also empowered. Lyra is a strong female and a child, and presented as the leader and protector amidst weaker male characters. She uses intelligence and compassion to overcome her fears and enact change (rather than exhibiting raw power and fearlessness to do as she pleases), and this sets her apart from other characters in fantasy stories (eg. Harry Potter).

There are a number of violent scenes in the film, but violence is never glamourised. There is always a feeling of fear and aberration; it’s clear that the intention is for the audience to wince rather than get excited, and I personally feel that’s important for violence in anything considered to be a children’s film. Gleely slaughtering others is something that I really can’t understand in a children’s film (see Narnia); I find it rather disturbing. The Golden Compass is concerned with truth and I found a lot of honesty in how it was presented.

Conclusion: Highly Recommended

7 thoughts on “The Golden Compass”

  1. Haven’t seen the the film, but the books were terrific – I just don’t read children’s fantasy but Alison had to for her job and she got _so_ excited about this one I had to make an exception. Also struck me at the time that if Pullman was writing with a movie translation in mind, he could scarcely have done it better.

    Those other series are not about children though. They _are_ about innocents and insignificants, so fantasy symbolism gives us children or hobbits. Crude maybe, but it was early days. I don’t think either of them make great reading now, but both had major significance in their own milleiu.(with Tolkein it’s just that his style really bores me, I know many others don’t mind it)

    LotR spawned a whole literary genre – it cleft fantasy from fairy-tale by creating a fully-conceptualised “parallel universe” rather than finding its fantastic elements in the wardrobe or through the looking-glass. Narnia is tremendously abmbitious and (for then, maybe) very well-realised historical allegory, especially with the constraints (then?) imposed by theological subject matter.

    Now maybe someone’s going to tell me that there is actually some direct overarching allegorical meaning I’ve missed in His Dark Materials because the plot and characterization seemed so unforced… surely not? No, that would really jar with the theme of denying/mistrusting supreme prescribed truth. It’s a bottom-up book.

  2. I can appreciate LoTR’s significance in literary history, but yeah his style bores me. His books tend to read like encyclopaedias wrapped in history lessons with a thin overall wrapping of story.

    I felt Narnia was escapist in direct response to the social political climate in which it was written. So… it represented something somewhat understandable at the time, but gratutious and out-of-date now.

  3. I thought the movie was a bit too rushed to get people from A to B to C so I didn’t get much time to introspect much until after the film. The Magisterium is the symbol of dogmatic organisations (but obviously modelled after the Church) that seeks to clamp down on forbidden knowledge and compel people to think their way.

    What was interesting is what Pullman is trying to say about the daemons and the Intercision process… I suspect the after-effects of the process is a parallel to what religious organisations do to young children, albeit not in such a drastic fashion.

    I’ll see about discussing it further later on when I’m back.

  4. I felt this movie tried too hard to be anti establishment. It basically got in your face “Hi, this movie is so totally anti establishment” but didn’t really back it up with anything. It’s like the author thought of the idea of dust but was never really able to figure out exactly what the hell he was thinking.

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