The Golden Compass (PG-13)
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Well, it's been several years since I read the His Dark Materials trilogy, so I can't remember all the details that well, but I've been waiting for this movie to come out for a long time. Of course, being as my memory's not so great, I can't say quite how much has been altered, but I can certainly say events have been sped up a great deal. That's pretty much bound to happen with any movie based on a novel, of course there isn't going to be enough room in two or three hours to tell the same story a book tells. Of course, as for this movie, there's been a lot of controversy surrounding the religious aspects. The books' author, Philip Pullman, is an atheist, I guess, and a lot of people think the books (and therefore the movie) are pushing an atheist agenda. Which personally I think is ridiculous. It's a fantasy story (though somewhat science fictiony), and anyone should be able to tell it has nothing to do with reality, whether you're Christian or not. Anyone who can be swayed by a fantasy story to alter their religious beliefs wasn't very faithful in the first place, if you ask me. Still, I do find the irony amusing, that the story's villainous institution, the Magisterium, is rather anti-free will (God's greatest gift to Man), wanting to control everyone's actions and put a stop to independent thinking, which is just what the Catholic League's campaign against the books and movie is. Anti-free thought. Thus equating themselves more directly with the Magisterium than the author necessarily intended in the first place. But it's important to note that the books have plenty of Christian fans who find the whole controversy just as ridiculous as anyone else.
But, of course, even great fans of the books may be disappointed in the movie. Personally, I love it, but I admit it's not as good as the book. As I said, events are sped up for the movie, and lots of details are omitted. Certainly, the filmmakers have left out anything too overtly religious, which I think is a mistake (and should be impossible if they make sequels). Not that it placates the religious detractors (who are, as much as anything, afraid that kids who like the movie will want to read the books). Whatever, I don't want to get back on that topic.... Some things have also been added or switched around. But I don't really mind any of that too much. A book and a movie are two different forms of entertainment, and I take each for what it is. While I generally prefer the book, for the movie's part, it's certainly fun to see the story brought to life. ...It should also be noted that some people who haven't read the books may have trouble following the story of the movie. Personally I think you're definitely in a better position to appreciate the movie if you're already familiar with the books, but I also don't think you should have that much trouble if you're completely new to the story. But I'll also say my appreciation of the movie is affected by my thinking of it as only the first of three parts, not a complete story. Which is just one of the reasons I'll be very upset if they don't make the next two books into movies, as well; it would in some wise diminish my appreciation of this movie.
Well, anyway, I should actually say something of the plot, shouldn't I? The movie is based on the first book in the series, which the movie will say is called "Northern Lights." Which is what it was originally called as published in Britain. But in North America, it was renamed "The Golden Compass." If you've already read the book review I linked to above, you'll know what that refers to (and indeed there won't be much point in my explaining anything of the movie's plot here, I suppose). But... in case you haven't, I'll do what I can to explain it here, as well. But not just yet. First of all, the movie begins with a voiceover explaining that there are countless parallel universes, with their own Earths. This movie is set in one of those universes, rather than our own.
The central character is a spirited, free-thinking, adventurous, clever and imaginative 12-year-old girl named Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan whose uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), left her to be raised at Jordon College, in Oxford. Oh, it's also important to mention that in this world, people's souls (called daemons) exist outside their bodies, appearing as animals, which can change form when the people are children, but when they grow up, the daemons settle into a permanent form. And the movie does touch on the fact that when either the person or their daemon gets hurt, the other feels it, too. And that people aren't supposed to touch other people's daemons. Lyra's daemon is called Pantalaimon, or Pan for short (voiced by Freddie Highmore). In spite of being raised at a college, Lyra often misses her studies, in favor of running around town, playing with other local children. Though we only really get acquainted at all with two others: her best friend, Roger, and a boy named Billy Costa. Billy is a Gyptian; his people travel on the sea.
Lord Asriel returns to Jordan College to present the Scholars with evidence of a particle called Dust originating from parallel universes, an idea which is considered heresy. He wants funding from the college for an expedition to the North to try to find a way into the other worlds. The Magisterium wants to prevent this, by any means necessary, but the school's Master believes in free thinking, and isn't swayed by the Magisterium's agent, Fra Pavel. So Asriel gets his funding and leaves, but not before telling Lyra, who had eavesdropped on the meeting, not to think or talk any more about Dust. Meanwhile, though she wishes she could go with him and learn more, she has other things to worry about. Local children are being abducted by kidnappers who those left behind call "Gobblers." Lyra and Roger promise each other that if either of them ever got captured, the other would go look for them.
Then the beautiful and charming Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) visits the college, and she appeals to Lyra's free-spirited nature. She's another agent of the Magisterium, in charge of a secret project far in the North, at a research station called Bolvangar. She wants Lyra to become her assistant and go with her. Before Lyra leaves the college, the Master gives her something called the Alethiometer (which resembles a golden compass). It has 36 arcane symbols on its face, and three hands that can be moved to point towards them in different combinations, while the user thinks of a question for it, and then a fourth hand swings between various symbols to give an answer. The Alethiometer tells the Truth, and can be a powerful tool to uncover hidden secrets. This is the last one in existence, as the Magisterium had gotten rid of such devices long ago. Of course, there's no one left who should even be able to use the device, but Lyra will soon take to it rather naturally. Anyway, the Master warns her to keep it a secret from Mrs. Coulter.
Before too long, Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is connected to the Gobblers, so she and Pan run away. As the Gobblers search for her, she is rescued by a family of Gyptians, led by Ma Costa. Billy Costa has been taken by the Gobblers, as has Roger, so they're going to try to find them, rescue them, and find out what's being done to them. They go meet the king of the Gyptians, John Faa, as well as his chief advisor, Farder Coram. Lyra will also meet a beautiful witch queen named Sarafina Pekkala (Eva Green), who is interested in Lyra's destiny, as she is believed to be the child from a very old prophecy among the witches, and that she will decide the outcome of an upcoming war. Lyra will also meet a Texan aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) and an ice bear (or panserbjorne) named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). Iorek has been exiled from his people, and the humans in the town where he now resides stole his armor, which is like a soul to an ice bear. But Lyra helps him get it back, so he considers himself under contract to her. He and Mr. Scoresby both join Lyra and the Gyptians on their quest.
Well, Lyra and Iorek will eventually find Billy Costa, who had wandered away from Bolvangar. (In the book they find a different boy, named Tony Makarios.) He was in a terrible mental state, having had his daemon cut away somehow. Later, Lyra's group is attacked by Samoyeds, who capture Lyra and take her to Svalbard, the kingdom of the ice bears. The king of the ice bears is Ragnar Sturlusson (whose name in the book was Iofur Raknison, changed for the movie because the filmmakers apparently thought moviegoing audiences couldn't handle the similarity between the names Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Raknison; which I resent but also seem to recall maybe having had the tiniest bit of trouble with when reading the book, much as I hate to admit it). Iofur, um, I mean Ragnar wants a daemon of his own. Lyra uses this fact to trick him into agreeing to single combat with the exiled Iorek.
Later, Lyra makes her way to Bolvangar, calling herself Lizzie Brooks, and finds Roger. She plans to help all the children escape, but after a meeting between the recently returned Mrs. Coulter and the staff, she is discovered by the staff and sent to the intercision chamber. Before Pan can be cut away from her, however, she is rescued by Mrs. Coulter, who has a shocking secret to reveal to Lyra (which I will not reveal in this review). Once again, Lyra runs away, destroying the intercision machine and taking the children with her. They're stopped by a regiment of Tartar guards and their wolf daemons, but soon help arrives from Iorek, Scoresby, the Gyptians, and the witches. It's during this battle that I came to a decision: anyone who likes the Lord of the Rings movies is not allowed not to like this movie. I disallow it. So there. Also, I wanted to mention a couple of things. One is that I like the effect of Pan transforming between different animals, something that happens so quickly it can't even be called morphing. The other is that I like the effect of a daemon disintegrating in a burst of light particles (perhaps Dust?) whenever someone dies. And that happens a lot in this battle, so it was pretty cool.
Well, Lyra wants to help the rescued children, in particular any children whose daemons have been cut away already. But first she wants to continue heading North, to look for Lord Asriel. She wants to return the Alethiometer to him, as he was the one who originally gave it to the College. And it has been telling Lyra that she's bringing him what he needs. Roger goes along with her, as do Iorek, Lee Scoresby, and Serafina Pekkala. And here, a bit more prematurely than the book, the movie ends. It was a decent enough climax I guess, and certainly happier than the climax of the first book. But they're leaving out something very important that I suppose they'll have to show us in the next movie, if they make one. Which they simply must, because the story isn't anywhere near finished yet. Aside from what they've left out here, there are, after all, two whole books yet to adapt....
So yeah anyway. Everything happens too fast, no segue between anything, hardly any time to absorb anything Lyra learns along the way, about Dust, its connection to "innocence," and the Authority (i.e., "God"), and the Magisterium's plans, and everything. Certainly not much time for character development. Plus it seems strange that almost everyone Lyra meets acts like they already know more about her than she does herself; and she's way too immediately trusting of strangers, though luckily this works out for the best more often than not. So... I really think it's a beautiful movie to look at, with a great cast, and a great score. And if you can get past the changes and all the omissions, the rushed pace, the glossing over of certain story elements, and all that, I still think it's a very interesting story. And once again it's important to bear in mind that it's just the first part of the story, which just makes me all the more anxious for the next movie to come out. If it even gets made. Um... and there are a few details I'm intentionally leaving out, but doubtless there are also things I'm simply forgetting. Whatever. It's a cool movie and you should definitely see it. And even definitelier read the books....
Edit after a few years have passed: I'm pretty sure there aren't going to be any sequels. Which freaking sucks. But whatever, the story was completed in the books, so I guess it doesn't really matter. Still, it would've been nice if the story could have been completed in film, as well. Sigh.