Friday, October 13, 2017

Movie Review - The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass
Based on the book by Philip Pullman
Starring: Eva Green, Daniel Craig, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dakota Blue Richards, Freddie Highmore, Ben Walker, Clare Higgins, Charlie Rowe, Jack Shepherd, Magda Szubanski, Nicole Kidman, Simon McBurney, Derek Jacobi, Edward de Souza, Christopher Lee, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Sam Elliott, Kathy Bates, Ian McKellen, Jason Watkins, Paul Antony-Barber, Hattie Morahan, and Ian McShane
Release Date: November 27th, 2007
Rating: ★★
To Buy

There are parallel worlds, worlds joined by Dust, some are just like ours with the only difference being that humans have constant animal companions called daemons. This is a story of that world and a girl, Lyra, and her daemon Pan. Lyra's living a carefree life in Jordan College, Oxford. She has her best friend Roger and all the gyptian kids to play with. They run amock and stage their childish wars and whisper about the evil gobblers that take kids away. Only maybe the gobblers are real... After a visit from her uncle, Lord Asriel, wherein he once again said Lyra was not to accompany him on his adventures to the north the beguiling Mrs. Coulter arrives and offers Lyra what Lord Asriel wouldn't, a true home and a northern adventure. Only Roger isn't there to see Lyra off. Soon Lyra is in London and thoughts of Roger are long gone. But life isn't perfect in Mrs. Coulter's world. She can be cruel and is obviously hiding things from Lyra. Of course Lyra is hiding things from her as well, in particular a Golden Compass, a symbol reader that the Master of Jordan College gave her. It soon becomes clear that Mrs. Coulter is actually the head of the gobblers who are kidnapping children to perform an operation on them called intercision and Roger was one of the kids taken. This and Mrs. Coulter's daemon trying to steal the Golden Compass is the last straw. Lyra runs into the night and is reunited with the gyptians. They are mounting a rescue mission north to rescue the children and Lyra wants to come. There she can rescue Roger, see an ice bear, and perhaps her uncle. But the journey is dangerous and she and Pan could be separated forever...

As the music soars and the end credits roll you realize that yes, not only are they ending the story before it's true grim final act, they are overly confident of a sequel that will never come. Could it be Daniel Craig's fault, as this is the first of many would be franchises that he kills proving he's only able to successfully churn out Bond film after Bond film? Or could it be that Chris Weitz shouldn't have had such grand ambitions? Whatever it was that went wrong, and a lot must have gone wrong, what was to be the next Harry Potter cum Lord of the Rings franchise was a sanitized steampunk odyssey that just didn't get it. Back when it was released in 2007 I remember getting all my friends together and just being dumbfounded that the whole movie was such a misstep. I seriously sat there unable to believe that they ended the tale on a happy and hopeful note. The reason I love the books is that despite being firmly rooted in fantasy there is realism with it's real world consequences. But the only real world consequence for the film franchise was that it was one and done. Girding my loins to actually watch the film for the first time since the theater I was struck by it's try-hard nature and that despite everything that went wrong, it wasn't as bad as I remembered. There were enough British actors that I love peppered throughout that they were able to distract me from the epic fail that was the overall film. Little things would occasionally be right, but overall it reeked of failed hope, even Saruman and Gandalf reuniting wasn't enough to save this floundering mess. Bloodless battles in a world that is too sleek and too dismissive of what the heart of the book is lead to a movie that makes no sense.

Moving beyond the illogical internal timeline that takes away all cause and effect, The Golden Compass was about flash and spectacle. The flash of a daemon being killed verses the substance of the connection between a human and their daemon. There is no heart and no soul. The irony shouldn't be lost on the faithful book readers. The story by Philip Pullman is all about growing up and learning about cause and effect and what if there was a procedure that could arrest childhood innocence. It's about separating the self from the soul in order to maintain this innocence. By stripping out all the layers on which the book works and going for a bowdlerized glitter-fest the movie has no soul. How can you ruminate on losing something you never had? This movie literally has no meaning. What's more is that while the soul is gone there could have been some glimmer of lessons learned. They could have maintained Lyra's loss of innocence with her journey from Jordan College to the perfumed, complicated, and adult world of Mrs. Coulter, but instead, once again, they vetoed that idea. By ending the tale on Lyra's balloon ride to her father she's still full of hope. The future is wide open. Yes, she's had harsh lessons, but all of them have been reversible. She fully loses her innocence when her father kills her best friend Roger, the one whom she had vowed to rescue. This false, and baffling to book fans, ending means that the entire moral of the story is gone, the cost of growing up is lost, and so was any chance at the film franchise succeeding.    

Yet the complete lack of insight into what the book is about wasn't just reserved to Lyra's journey, it encompassed the entire world Philip Pullman had built and can be seen most clearly in the daemons. This film literally just does not get daemons. The films opens with Eva Green's husky voice explaining about parallel worlds and Lyra's world and what exactly daemons are. But the truth is they tried and failed quite quickly while setting down the rules. There are glaring omissions and breeches that the uninformed viewer would just not see. One such omission is the whole distance rule. Humans and their daemons can only be a certain distance apart. Why is this important? Because when Lyra and Pan freak out not knowing where Mrs. Coulter's evil monkey is you don't get the reasoning behind it. It's because there should be no way that her monkey is off doing it's own thing. A HUGE revelation, and yet? Brushed aside. As for daemons touching each other and humans touching daemons not their own... well these are taboos NEVER laid down. The fact that Pan is all cosy with that creepy golden monkey about five seconds after meeting him, no no no. Touching is a no no. Lord Asriel's daemon bullying Pan? Again, NO! I mean, did Chris Weitz actually read the source material? Because once again by not setting the rules down a later scene doesn't have the impact it should. When the scientists at Bolvanger grab Pan no one watching this film would get the horror this implies. As for the Dust going THROUGH the daemons, lets not even go there. But all these things are nothing compared to how shitty the CGI is. Oh. Dear. Me. The truth is if you couldn't be sure of nailing this you just shouldn't have done this movie. The daemons are weirdly suffused with light and they don't move right, almost like the animators had never even seen a real animal. As for the fur? It shouldn't move by it's own wind and it shouldn't move in individual strands. 

Yet oddly enough it was the voices of the daemons that bothered me most. I'm not sure if it was miscasting or what, but the connection between a human and their daemon is so deep that I kind of feel weird hearing their voices aloud versus being a voice in their human's head. But I will say that this film isn't exempt from bad casting. Daniel "franchise killer" Craig aside I think anyone watching this film knows who is to blame, and that's Nicole Kidman. Sure, she's a big name, but that doesn't mean she's the right choice. She is ALL WRONG for Mrs. Coulter. This character has to be a split personality, she has to have a motherly seductive warmth that lures children in while also having a terrifying side embodied by that evil golden monkey. Here she only has the terrifying side. She's cold and calculating and just not right. It's like they took the arctic idea that threads through the book and instead of discussing the aurora or ice they just decided to have Nicole embrace these ideals, once again without looking at the bigger picture. The only plus that can be said is at least she hadn't at this point had so much plastic surgery that she looked more daemon than human, but that is a very small plus. Also, let's not even get started on Jim Carter, aka the beloved Carson from Downton Abbey wearing enough eye shadow that he could front a Glam Rock band because at least he was well cast. In fact the smaller roles were all so well cast that I almost want to go back in time and reshoot this film with almost the same cast but with a script that gets the bigger picture. For a film franchise you have to look to the future, not strip everything out and just hope it works. 

What was completely stripped out was the church. And this is unacceptable. I understand the reason behind this and I also understand why you'd be confused by me even mentioning the church in this review had you not read the source material. See, The Magisterium, the evil organization that Mrs. Coulter works for is really The Church, they are one and the same. Yet this adaptation took pains to make sure you never thought this by making cardinals councilors and throwing a few emissaries around the place. The production thought that the film would be too controversial if the big bad was the church. They removed them from Europe, plonked them down in London and made them an evil worlds dominating organization, not trying to, you know, stop the spread of sin, but helping these children become mindless zombies that they could control? Um, WTF!?! I just don't get it. The books are ALL about the church and if you remove it the domino effect happens, as you can see from all my previous complaints. You change one thing, and another, then another, all trying to fill the void by the initial change and in the end you end up with a near incomprehensible mess. A happy ending without a single grain of truth. Now, the church of old, the great old inquisition of centuries past might like the irony of this, but as a fan of the book just all the no. If you were going to change so much why even bother making this an adaptation? Make something new, something original. Don't take something with soul and strip mine it for something marketable, something soulless. Yes, I might not have loathed this film on second viewing, but it made me sad and wistful. The what could have been is so tangible that the ensuing disappointment is almost more of a letdown than the film itself.


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