Friday, February 22, 2008

movie review: "The Golden Compass"

So. It seems to me that the societal furor over this movie has died down somewhat. Or perhaps I’m just insulated and isolated from it and blind to current controversy. (Feel free to correct me on that. ;o) Anyway…as the walrus said, “the time has come,” and I will try to arrange my thoughts about “The Golden Compass” in some semblance of order.

As I told one of my aunts recently, I almost wish I had heard nothing about this film before watching it. It would have been nice for someone to have said, “Courtney, here’s a newly-released movie. Please watch it and tell me what you think,” and left it at that. Unfortunately, life is rarely so simple, and I spent the entire movie trying to push other people’s opinions out of my head while attempting to formulate my own.

I think I achieved a degree of success in this endeavor. So now I’m going to state my opinion so other people will have the same difficulty in forming theirs that I had in forming my own. Ha! Take that! *grin*

Wikipedia provides a great synopsis of the plot, so I’m not going to regurgitate it here. In brief, what I saw was a fast-paced, action-packed, well-made, creative, inventive, interesting, original, special-effects-laced fantasy film.

For adults.

Not for kids.

If you know me, or if you peruse my blog with anything like regularity, you know that the sci-fi and high fantasy genres are my thing. I read them, I watch them, I write them. “Compass” fits very nicely into both, so from that vantage point, I enjoyed the movie immensely. (If you enjoy those genres and watch/have watched the movie, you’ll know where I’m coming from. If you don’t care for those genres, I won’t bore you with the details.)

So, if I’m a proponent of sci-fi and fantasy, why wouldn’t I show this film to kids?

Well, I think my main glitch (thank you, “Reality Bites”) is with the main character, Lyra Belacqua. I don’t know how Lyra is written in the books, but in the movie, she frankly comes across as an obnoxious brat. She lies to anyone she must in order to get her way (including to her closest friends); she shows little respect for anyone around her; and she spends most of the film with a spiteful frown on her face. Everything she does is for her own self-interest. As a heroine, her only redeeming features are her protectiveness of her dæmon, Pantalaimon (“Pan”), and her determination to rescue her friends from the Gobblers.

Some might claim that the protectiveness and the determination are more than redeeming of her negative characteristics. However, keep in mind that taking care of Pan is also in Lyra’s best interest, as she suffers any pain that is inflicted on him and becomes captive herself if he is imprisoned.

A side note on the film’s concept of dæmons, which includes what is, in my opinion, a major plot hole: Early on, the film shows that human souls appear in the form of dæmons, animals which can talk and accompany their humans everywhere they go. What pain the dæmon feels, the human feels, and vice versa. However, when one of the antagonists, Mrs. Coulter, becomes frustrated with her dæmon, she slaps him…and feels no pain herself. I think consistency should have demanded that Mrs. Coulter flinch as a result of the slap she delivered. Also on a conceptual point: If a dæmon is a physical representation of a human soul, then (a) how can that dæmon have a personality distinct and different from the human’s? how could the “soul” every do anything that the human didn’t want it to do? and (b) how could a female human have a male soul? or vice versa?

Anyway…I’m sure there must be answers to these questions, but they certainly aren’t to be found in the film.

(A final note on the dæmons: This isn’t the first time for the sentient-animal-inextricably-linked-with-human idea. Ages of myth and folklore have given us this concept in witches’ familiars. More recently in the fantasy genre, Jennifer Roberson made use of it in her “Cheysuli” novels, starting with “Shapechangers” in 1984. And she did a better job of it.)

Back to Lyra. Main characters should definitely always have some major flaw about them, perhaps even a tragic flaw. If that is what the filmwriters were trying to achieve through Lyra’s obnoxiousness, they failed. They succeeded only in making her annoying and nearly impossible to empathize with. She is the major reason I wouldn’t show this film to a child: I would want no child of mine to identify with her as a main character and imitate her. Main characters automatically function as role models for children. I certainly wouldn’t want my children to consider such an obnoxious, anti-authority personality a role model for behavior.

Furthermore, the film generally encompasses themes that I consider too adult for children. There’s the drunken bear whom Lyra recruits as one of her closest allies. There’s the sexual undertone as she (a child herself) manipulates the bear king into following her plan. There’s the violence of the bears themselves. (In a fight between two bears, one tears the other’s lower jaw off. I imagine a child would find this scary. But perhaps I’m being too biased here; ever since Three-Toes of “The Wilderness Family,” I have been terrified of bears, gentle Samson notwithstanding; so perhaps I’m just projecting a childhood fear in this case. {But I think not.}) There’s the concept of the kidnapping of children for nefarious purposes. There’s the idea that all authority is dangerous and to be thwarted.

I don’t think young children need exposure to such themes.

Older children, on the other hand, might benefit from watching the movie with parents and following up with in-depth discussion. I believe firmly that if parents are teaching the values and concepts they should be teaching in the first place, then they have nothing to fear from older children’s exposure to other beliefs and values. That’s all I’ll say about that for now, though, as that’s a whole ‘nother soapbox. ;o)

Now for the film’s theological implications.

I didn’t see any.


Okay, here’s the deal: Society in the world of “Compass” is controlled by a religious entity known as the Magisterium. Another glitch I have with the film is that the nature of this Magisterium wasn’t presented very clearly. It was nearly impossible to catch the names of the leaders, figure out their specific functions (for instance, I knew Christopher Lee's character was there, but I never really knew why), or even discover their actual motivations. This aspect of the film felt very loose-end and hasty to me: Scenes passed quickly, unclearly, and confusingly. I came away with the sense that the Magisterium is designed to represent the Catholic Church, or at least organized religion, but I can’t say if that’s an idea I formed based on the film itself or on the opinions of others that biased me beforehand (see 2nd paragraph). :oP

What was clear was that the Magisterium is heavy-handed, has its fingers in all the pies, and carries itself with a general Orwellian air of everyone-is-equal-except-the-ones-that-aren’t.

To me, this is not a theological implication, even if “Golden Compass” author Phillip Pullman and the film’s scriptwriters meant it to be a theological implication. There was no “killing of God” in this film, as the hype would have us believe. If there was a veiled attack on “Christianity” in the film, then it came in the form of a subtle criticism of Catholicism, which would only be problematic if one equates Catholicism with Christianity, which I don’t.

I have also heard, though, that the “killing of God” doesn’t take place until the third part of the trilogy…but I am writing now of “Compass” and not of some as-yet-unmade film I haven’t seen. I have also heard that the theological implications are more blatant in the book…but I’m reviewing the film, here, not the book.

Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware—with “The Golden Compass” and with everything else in life. If I started boycotting everything connected with the proponents of atheism, I would eventually have to seek out a lonely cave somewhere and isolate myself from the rest of the world. History’s ascetics did the same, and that’s not the will of God for any human, I believe. His will is that we “test everything and keep the good.”

“The Golden Compass” is a film for adults, not for children, unless parents are willing to take the time and put in the effort required for serious, patient discussion. Those who practice discernment need have no fear of this film. If Pullman and the filmwriters have an agenda, the best defense against it is to examine it and combat it with knowledge, not with the kind of reactionary sensationalism that inspires fear and intractability. (I once posted thoughts in a similar vein on the so-called “Gospel of Judas” here)

By itself, this film is no more “good” (morally speaking) or “evil” than any other run-of-the-mill fantasy film. If the book’s author or the filmwriters intended it to have a moral message beyond the confines of its own fantasy-world-boundaries (aside from the idea of let-us-have-no-oppressive-bodies-of-government), that message doesn’t come across.

And I guess that’s all I have to say about that.

P.S. I took a big chunk out of my novel-writing day to get all this down, so I want to hear no complaints that I wrote too much or didn’t address something somebody else considers vital. ;oD


Jed A. Lovejoy said...

I did a lot of research on the novel and the movie when all the hype was buzzing and I couldn't quite figure out why everyone was up in arms about this one.
I still haven't gotten around to watchin the movie and the book is next on my list. I enjoyed your review and no, I didn't think it was too long.

Bri said...

A thorough and well-written review. I have not seen the movie or read the book, though I have received a number of emails on the subject :) I think the main thing to remember is, like you mentioned, to use discernment,especially if you are going to let your children watch it--but shouldn't we be doing that with ANY film?!?

Court said...

Jed: Thanks for reading and commenting! An unexpected but enjoyable visit. :o) I agree, I still don't see what all the fuss was about.

Bri: Answer to your final question: ABSOLUTELY!!! I get so irritated with parents who complain about the bad influences in their children's lives, and yet these same people plunk their children down in front of the TV day after day after day. Have they never heard of screening?!?