Friday, December 7, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: The Golden Compass

I have not read Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series. In fact, until today - after I saw The Golden Compass - I knew literally nothing what-so-ever about the stories or their characters.

I had however, heard and read a bunch of nonsense recently from Christian groups wanting to boycott the film because of the book's supposedly anti-Christian properties. Every time this happens, I find myself often chuckling at the absurd catch 22 that the religious find themselves in. In order to boycott an artwork because they believe the ideas expressed in that artwork will lead people to evil, hell, Satan, etc., they must themselves avoid any firsthand experience of the art. Of course, when you avoid experiencing the artwork your boycotts are fueled only by rumor - and everybody with half a brain realizes this. Such is certainly the case with The Golden Compass and fortunately, the splashes being made by religious groups will serve only to bring the film a larger audience.

Before I get to the film itself, I also would like to mention that on the other side of the religious boycotts are plenty of fans, atheists and other groups crying "censorship!" This is a ridiculous and depressingly common inaccuracy which reduces the debate to a very stupid level. Censorship requires authority and the legitimized use of force - government book burning for example. A religious group calling for private citizens to boycott a film or any artwork in order to express their views is a fabulous way of expressing disagreement. In a free society, people must be free to make the films they want, free to see them, free to not see them, and yes; free to convince others not to see them as well. To everyone contributing to the hooplah surrounding this thing: Relax.

Now. About the film:

The basic structure of The Golden Compass follows a kind of underlying mythology found throughout the world. There's the youthful hero Lyra Belacqua, a tomboyish orphaned girl of 11 years old who knows little of her past or her future, but gets unwittingly swept into a larger universe. She must grow up of course, but the transformation isn't without its adventure. Lyra has a beloved and very mysterious adventurer uncle named Lord Asriel, an armored polar bear friend and protector named Iorek Byrnison, and most important of all in her world, people's souls reside in animal form outside their bodies and Lyra's is a shape-shifting little mink named Pan. There are the motherly figures, the wise-old men who act as guides - including Lyra's headmaster and a pilot/cowboy played by Sam Elliott known as Lee Scoresby - and the grand struggles not only between good and evil, freedom and control, thought and dogma, but the internal battles of a girl growing up. In a strange way, Lyra's story is more that of the ritualistic rights of passage boys undergo in their transformation to become men than the story of a girl becoming a woman (please see Joseph Campbell for that reference prior to calling me sexist).

Finally, like The Force in another ubiquitous mythology, all things in this universe are connected by a magical ether simply referred to as "Dust". And it is Dust that sparks all of the controversy...

Lord Asriel's research into the properties of Dust ruffles the feathers of The Magisterium, which as I understand it in the book is synonymous with religion and the church, but in the film is more of an authoritarian government... Not that there is much of a difference between the two... Ultimately, it is Asriel's blasphemy that sends the Magisterium into action.

One of the representatives of the Magisterium is Marisa Coulter (though we don't know that right away), who seems nice enough at first and asks Lyra to join her for an exciting adventure to the North. Lyra is excited to get away from her formal education and her orphan home - excited at the prospect of doing anything like her uncle Asriel. Just before Lyra and Ms. Coulter embark on their journey the headmaster of Lyra's school gives her a compass-like device called an Alethiometer. The golden compass will show the user "the truth" in any situation. A dozen exist, but all but the one Lyra now possesses have been confiscated by the Magisterium. The metaphor is certainly not lost here: The government (and religion) must be in control of the truth to maintain their dominance of the universe.

Another way the Magisterium is attempting to maintain control is through the creation of a sort of metaphysical surgery which separates the soul-animals of children from the children themselves - thus rendering them easily manageable and highly obedient. Many of Lyra's friends have been abducted by agents known as "Gobblers" and among her many adventures; she must rescue them as well.

As for the technical merits of the film in question, The Golden Compass has a few minor flaws from an effects perspective... In one sequence, there's a particularly obnoxious (to me) computer generated lens-flare that simply should have been left out. The acting is generally superb, as one might expect from a cast including Sirs Ian McKellen & Christopher Lee (briefly), Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and my personal favorite - Sam Elliott. As typecast as the man is, there will simply never be a better mustachioed cowboy in film. The film clocks in just shy of two hours, and to be honest, I could have used an extra 20 minutes or so to bolster the affect of the conclusion. Having since read the Wikipedia entries on the plot of the original novel, I certainly think the end of the first act as written by Pullman would have been a much better end to the film, but I won't go into that here.

Going in as ignorant of the source material as I was, I expected a complete film - however, The Golden Compass is merely the opening chapter to a much larger saga involving the battle between authority and free will played out on a marvelously fantastical scale. I am a bit reluctant to give a specific rating for this film as I have really only seen the first act, but if all goes well, I hope to see the rest of this story unfold. This film (and the series overall) deals with a much more serious and substantial set of intellectual issues than many of its counterparts. The underlying message of the film is fabulously pro-thought and pro-freedom, and personally, I am basking in the glorious irony that a film that takes on the issue of free-thought vs. authoritarian state/religious control - even in the watered-down, commercialized form presented here - has its metaphors played out literally in the asinine, manufactured controversy it has caused.

Looking forward to the next installment!

The Golden Compass:

THE MUSIC REVIEW: Alexandre Desplat has composed a score for The Golden Compass which may skirt the boundaries a bit too close to fantasy-genre cliches, but for me sets an excellent tone and shows a lot of nuance and compositional skill. I recently complained somewhat about Alan Silvestri's score to Beowulf which seemed to me to be holding back a lot for a film and subject matter which was excitingly over-the-top. Desplat's work for this film is in a lot of ways what I wish Silvestri had done. The orchestral scale and intensity of scoring really fit the scope of The Golden Compass and did so in such a way which reflected both the childish and adult characteristics at play on screen. That is not to say that it is entirely without some problems. For example, the opening sequence seemed to me to be a bit derivative of Howard Shore's lighthearted "Shire" cues in the Lord of the Rings - and if not that then perhaps Edvard Grieg's "Morning Mood". Those comparisons might be a bit extreme, but the opening certainly played up this extremely innocent, childish and folksy quality which really didn't exist in the context of the film at large - although what music was there, was well written. I would have liked to have heard more leitmotif development up front and the establishment of an alternate-dimension time and place - more magic. Beyond that, the cliche that bugged me might very well be a pet peeve that only applies to me, but in the first sequence of Lyra and Ms. Coulter leaving the port in her sky-ship, Desplat touches on an alternating 5th, minor 6th interval in the horns over a sustained major chord - ultimately an inversion of an augmented triad with an added major 7th which I (and you all) have heard in virtually every fantasy film score ever written. This may seem like nitpicking, but it would be quite obvious to you if I pointed it out and as far as I'm concerned could have been more creatively avoided. With all that in mind however, speaking as a composer, all of my beefs with the score smack of heavy-handed director involvement - though I would have to check out more of Desplat's scores to be sure. All in all, the score to The Golden Compass was handled very well and I look forward to hearing more from Alexandre Desplat in the future.

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