The Golden Compass (4/10)

There is a moment in this movie where my heart soared, my breath was taken away, and I clapped along with everyone in the theater at what had just happened. It was a wonderful moment one that I still remember quite vividly because of one key fact: it was the only moment, in the entire movie, that I felt this way. Throughout the entire affair, I tried my absolute best to enjoy this movie, and normally, if I don’t feel enjoyment, I just have fun with ripping it apart, but I didn’t do that here. Despite my best efforts, the Golden Compass failed to excite me, draw me in, or give me anything I wanted from a movie in most every possible way. It was an almost painful experience, one of the most difficult times I’ve had at the movies in a long while. A derivative and unimaginative Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter wanna-be, His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass just does not work.

The opening of the film has us flying through a universe of whirling galaxies and fantastic colors, and for a few precious seconds it seemed like this was going to be a good and fantastic fantasy movie. We learn that there are many universes, worlds, and galaxies, some where people’s soul’s live inside their bodies, and some where the souls walk around on the outside, as in the alternative universe that our young plucky heroine, Lyra, inhabits. These corporeal animal souls are called daemons, and Lyra’s is Pantalaimon. One day, she happens to accidentally listen in on the conversation of her uncle, Lord Asriel, with leading members of Jordan College, where she lives, and also learns, that Asriel has discovered a way to travel between universes, which makes the leading members of Jordan College none too pleased, for they hate the idea that anything could exist beyond their own world. Soon after this, Ann Coulter, er, I mean, Marisa Coulter, a leading member of the Magisterium, the ruling class in Lyra’s land, takes an interest in Lyra and ferries her to the capital city where Lyra soon discovers her savior isn’t all she thought she would be. From here, Lyra goes through many adventures and meets many interesting characters along the way and o on and so forth. In a script that takes the tired idea of one person going on a quest to save the world, something must be done to differentiate itself, and The Golden Compass fails to do this.

The biggest problem of the film is casting and characterization. Dakota Blue Richards, who plays Lyra, is a cheeky youngster who takes her assignment to play a headstrong female lead and makes her an annoying self-centered whiny baby. Throughout most of the film she is constantly whimpering about how she hates people telling her what to do, which is presumably to make us want to see why the Magisterium is so oppressive, but which only makes her completely hateable. Throughout most of the movie I felt like giving her a solid smack across the face. She just wouldn’t <i>shut up</i>. On top of this poor characterization, most of the adults in the film come of as naive people who only care about telling people what not to do. Nicole Kidman does her best with Ms. Coulter, but the script calls for her to be incredibly naive and so she she just comes off as a flat-out idiot. A key plot point revolves around a deception that the audience doesn’t buy for one minute, yet which for some odd reason the characters onscreen accept without questioning at all. Iorek Byrnison, the ice bear that all-too-conveniently befriends Lyra, is voiced by Ian McKellen, and here’s the surprising thing: he’s actually disappointing. He sounds like he’s on auto-pilot, giving us the typical wise-old man routine without any effort at all. Despite this, he’s still Ian freakin McKellen, and as such, is light years better than most everybody else in the film. Sam Elliot, who plays a rogue cowboy-type-person that for some odd reason to decides to aid Lyra, was my favorite part about the film, as he pulls of his role with tobacco-spitting gusto. And damn if that mustache won’t eat any other mustache alive.

Another weakness of the movie is the rather unimpressive, sometimes needlessly incoherent, and disappointing plot. The daemons do little more than flit around and affect the people’s health if strangled or something, while providing some very impressive CGI. That’s about it. No real connection is ever felt. All the daemons feel more like little furry animal friends than their freakin souls. There are a couple of nice touches, such as when Coulter’s monkey daemon interacts with Lyra’s mostly-weasel daemon. Their interactions mirror the emotions running between Coulter and Lyra, and it’s very intriguing, but unfortunately, things like that only happen two or three times throughout the whole film. Another problem is that the daemons are never properly explained. Supposedly children’s daemons can change shape whenever they want, yet in key moments, where a simple change of shape to a smaller form would make the whole thing a lot simpler, for some weird reason they are unable to change shape. Why? Also, why does it seem that only Lyra’s daemon can talk? I suppose it could be that we are seeing everything from her point of view, so we can only hear her daemon speak, but the movie should have explained this a whole lot better than it does. And if this is Lyra’s soul we’re talking about, it seems awfully plain and boring to merely have them speak words to each other. Shouldn’t their bond be more powerful?

Another issues is the director, Chris Weitz, who is very obviously way out of his element here. First of all, he wrote the script, which as we’ve seen above doesn’t do to well to explain things in the book, and second of all, he directed this mess. He wrote and directed “About a Boy” as well as co-directed American Pie, and big budget fantasy is obviously not his thing. Most of the camera-work feels like it was done by chance – when a good shot occurs, which isn’t too often, you feel more like it was an accident than purposeful. He just simply absolutely sucks at cinematography, and scenes that should be full of excitement are spoiled by his inexperience in maneuvering a freakin camera. He only seems preoccupied with what is happening in the moment, and absolutely nothing else. When Lyra is running on Iorek’s back across vast fields of snow, it’s a scene that should feel majestic, grand, and epic, but I actually half-expected Iorek to crack open a bottle a Coca-Cola and start guzzling. The commercial wherein polar bears share some coke with penguins feels better filmed than this. He also doesn’t seem to know how to stage an emotional scene. There is a part, near the end, that, in the right hands, would have felt tragic, wrenching, and horrible, but because of the direction, ends up being a mere inconvenience with barely any emotion at all. And I’m sorry, Dakota Richards, but screaming does not count as acting. Add to all this the amount of cliches that pile up (at one point a character must cross a thing bridge made of ice across a miles-deep ravine), and you have one poorly-made movie.

Despite some pretty good CGI work, a lot of it is unimaginative. As I mentioned, the scenes in the arctic remind me more of a Coca-Cola commercial than they do a true fantasy adventure. The effects when Lyra reads the alethiometer (a device used for detecting truth) are so dull and derivative I had to hold my head in my hands in disappointment whenever it happened. Yes, the CGI is very very very good, but the way it is implemented leaves something to be desired. The best part about the effects are, hands down, the daemons. Everything else just kind of sits there like a rock.

This is just flat-out a badly made movie. None of the characters are really likeable, some of the story is never explained too well, the main girl is a selfish brat, and key plot points hinge on chance encounters and unbelievable occurrences. Anything good coming out of this movie results by sheer luck and not by skill, except perhaps the CGI, which is just flat-out some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. The action scenes are okay, and they shine despite Weitz’s direction. Some of the more colorful characters add a bit of a bright spot as well, but I’m sorry, this is just not a good movie. It’s a shame, because as I understand it this was some very rich source material. Another shame is that because of all the boycotting going on, it will only cause people to want to see it more. And the general reaction, judging by both rotten tomatoes and the normal public, has been disappointment. If you want to see a good fantasy film, go to Lord of the Rings, or one of the first three Harry Potters (the fourth and fifth less so). And if you think I’m being unfair in comparing this film to these franchises, for one, Pullman has said that he loves Rowling, and for another, New Line Cinema is touting this as the next Lord of the Rings, so they are begging the comparison. In the end, The Golden Compass is the kind of movie that makes you blessedly thankful for skilled fantasy directors like Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Chris Columbus, and Alfonso Cuaron. Chris Weitz just isn’t up to par, both as a writer and as a director. Here’s hoping that the next two installments will switch directors, because if it stays this way, it’s only going to get worse.

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If you’ve been wanting to see The Golden Compass, go ahead and see it, because anything I say won’t keep you from it. You may like it, but there’s a large chance you won’t. I was personally very disappointed, and I think that merits the film, at best, a rental down the road.

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