dir: Chris Weitz
The hardest obstacle faced by any new fantasy film that comes out now is that it has to distinguish itself from the Harry Potter series and the Lord of the Rings movies to be taken seriously. That is, if the actual intention is to distinguish itself, instead of aping them and going out of the way to remind you of the similarities to cut down on the marketing budget.
Why craft a campaign around celebrating the best aspects of your brand new potential film trilogy when all you have to say is “It’s just like Harry Potter hanging out with Frodo in Narnia! We’ll even use some of the same actors just to remind you, you stupid muggles!”
If no distinction is entertained or sought, then you can dismiss these flicks to straight-to-DVD hell and brand them little more than a cheap Rings/Potter knock-offs, and go back to sleeping comfortably. Night-night baby.
The great difficulty faced by this film specifically is that the story stands in stark contrast to material like that of the Harry Potter franchise or, more aptly, the Narnia tales, but has been rendered into a form most calculated to remind people of, say, the Narnia and Potter franchises. Ah, familiarity and the contentment / contempt that it brings.
It’s a shame, because there’s something so subversive going on in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the first book Northern Lights being transformed into The Golden Compass here. Not just the most oft quoted aspect being the thinly veiled attack on dogmatic religion, the totalitarian actions of its establishment and its celebration of free will.
It’s subversive in the way that it aspires to tell a story more interesting and more complicated than just some orphan moppet finding out they’re really royalty and going from zero to hero in record time. All with the accompaniment of a John Williams score, if you’re lucky.
All the same, the story is about an apparently orphaned moppet, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), who finds herself swept up into events way beyond her imagination and pay grade, in a strange parallel universe similar to our own but different enough in significant ways.
One of the more striking differences in this world that looks like a very clean steampunk version of 19th Century Britain, is that people’s souls take animal shape and follow them as companions, being called daemons. Children’s daemons shift shape as situation or whim dictates, and so Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon changes from mouse to bird to water buffalo based on how he feels at any given time.
Lyra is pretty annoying at first since she’s an almighty brat, but her character arc, I think, is less about becoming the heroic hero of the piece, but more about becoming less annoying over the course of the film, and thus slightly more likeable. No, that's unfair. She's supposed to earn her progress through the film, she's not entitled to it by dint of birth or magical prophecies that say she is The One.
She resides at some posh college that looks awfully like an American idea of what Oxford looks like (in our reality) under the stewardship of her apparent uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), making a low-level nuisance of herself. In her reality, the Magisterium, which is pretty much an evil, corporate version of the Christian Church, ruthlessly tries to control pretty much everything, including what people think. They seem to hate Lord Asriel, and let’s face it, who doesn’t hate any man called Asriel, and they have evil meetings in evil looking boardrooms where 86-year-old Christopher Lee proves how evil the high-ups in the Magisterium are since he’s one of them. What the hell else is he going to be but evil?
It’s about Dust, you see. Both Lord Asriel and the Magisterium are more than curious about some strange manifestation of a particle they call Dust which seems to have been captured on film up north flowing through a man’s daemon and into him. It looks like the aurora borealis (hence the Northern Lights title of the book), but points to something much deeper and, dare I say it, original in this fantasy series that distinguishes it somewhat from other fantasy series.
Needless to say they spend enough time on Dust for it to register, but not enough time for anyone not familiar with the books to understand what the fuck they’re talking about.
Just to be really out there and unpredictable, Nicole Kidman plays an icy, nice-seeming but evil operative of the Magisterium called Mrs Coulter, who has some strange power over the dons of the college. When she asks that Lyra accompany her north for some Dust-related reason, no-one seems to be able to think of a reason why Lyra shouldn’t go with her.
At the same time, two of Lyra’s child friends seem to have disappeared, and rumours abound of nefarious deeds at the hands of the Gobblers, who kidnap and perform evil experiments on children. For nebulous reasons, every part of the story points North to the icy wastes where Lyra’s destiny will cross paths with every other plot point you can think of, imagine, or discard.
Prior to leaving the college, Lyra, sporting the most obnoxious Cockney accent you can imagine, is given an alethiometer, which is a strange looking compass type thing that tells the user, if they are capable, the truth of any given question or situation. The way it is implemented in the film turns the alethiometer into the laziest plot device imaginable.
In a well-plotted film, the characters move from point A to point B in either organic (as in believable, sensible) or intriguing, inventive ways. In a mediocre or downright badly plotted film, some arbitrary device like a psychic, a crystal ball or a magical golden compass is used to move people and plot along. It’s lazy and it makes for lazy storytelling.
Up North, in the realm of the Samoyeds (evil Eskimo Russians) and panserbjorns (armoured, talking polar bears), all questions will be answered, all action clichés will be approached and all manner of dei ex machina will be perpetrated to come up with a happy ending that makes no sense to anyone who even vaguely knows anything about the books. As for the uninitiated, it will just look like the end of pretty much every fantasy film they’ve ever seen before.
There are plenty more characters and complications along the way, as Lyra is helped in turn by Gyptians (face tattoed gypsies), flying Texans (in the form of the always welcome Sam Elliot), flying witches (led by the delectable Eva Green) and an angry bear (voiced by Ian McKellan, so the bear sounds like bloody Gandalf), but, really, the way the story is told entirely lacks conviction. Whatever is interesting or distinctive about this story is abandoned or at least constructed in a bare-bones fashion so as to just use the elements as window-dressing. It points to significant differences of opinion between the people involved who actually liked and wanted to tell the story, as opposed to those who just wanted to use the title as a brand logo to label a generic product.
Why this film cost $180 million to make is anybody’s guess. What they were hoping to achieve by ripping the guts out of the story is anybody’s guess. By cheapening the interesting elements of the story, they’re pretty much guaranteeing that veterans and neophytes alike will be disappointed.
I know I was. I can cut the film a certain amount of slack, even for cutting out much of the anti-Church stuff, since they leave enough in to be noticeable (such as when Iorek the bear breaks into a Magisterium building to get his armour back, the building is clearly covered in Byzantine icons). The Magisterium itself is depicted like the Empire from the Star Wars films, so there’s not much wrong there. It’s just that if you’re going to have Derek Jacobi in a film, and a whole host of other actors of a certain calibre in a fantasy film, cut ‘em loose! Let them do what they’re supposed to: don’t just have them there so you can say “Ooo, look, come watch our film because Dame Judi fucking Dench is in it, not because she actually does any decent acting in it".
The flick is so rushed and so hurried that you feel as if the makers lack confidence in and are a bit embarrassed by the story. They’ve hollowed it out to the extent where you begin to forget which fantasy flick you’re watching, what they’re trying to do, and why you should care. It easily needed another hour at least to actually tell its story instead of scrawling a synopsis of itself onto post-it notes.
One of the few things handled exceptionally well is the animation, characterisation and final fight betwixt the bears. They’re bigger and even more menacing than the polar bears of our realm, and though the fight between Iorek and Iorfur/Ragnar, the usurper, is less brutal than that depicted in the book, I have to say I thought it was brilliantly done, and probably the best scene in the film. When a CGI battle between polar bears can leave me stunned, then they’ve done at least part of their job well.
I wish I could say the same about the climactic, entirely fake looking battle at the end of the flick used to bookend, which completely undercuts the ending of the first book in order to have a false happy ending. Witches, Gyptians, children, wolf-daemons, lions tigers and bears oh my. Exploding buildings; Christ Almighty, does every flick have to have a building blow up?
From where they choose to end it, it’s pretty much obvious that after all the years of squabbling, hobbling and firing and re-hiring directors, New Line never intended to make the subsequent novels into films. They wanted to cut their losses and move on. Of course, in a bout of poetic justice, the company itself is no more, having been restructured out of existence by the parent company for being so incompetent.
I bear enmity towards the producers and money handlers, but not towards the people who tried to make it work. Lyra is enjoyable after a time, and she interacts well with CGI creatures and humans alike. Kidman can play bloodless bitches in her sleep, and thus is perfect as Coulter. Sam Elliot is welcome in any film, no matter how absurd the character. The icy landscapes are gorgeously rendered, at least they mention Dust and the Magisterium’s false attribution of Original Sin, even if it is done in a half-arsed manner, and The Authority is name-checked by Coulter as well.
As for the powerful themes of children learning to reason and think for themselves, casting off the detritus of centuries of orthodoxy in order to come up with their own truths, how well do you think they fared overall in the flick I described throughout the course of this review?
Sure, it could have been much, much better, but it could have been substantially worse as well. I would love to see The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass get made, but I doubt anyone’s got the courage to do it properly. It’s just another property to them that fulfils a market niche, and doesn’t require any level of attention above squeezing it into the easiest cookie-cutter format in order to sell tickets and DVDs to the unquestioning masses.
What a shame. How I’d love to see a film about people trying to kill God.
6 times I wish the sight of a polar bear drinking cheap booze our of a bucket didn’t remind me of Bundaberg Rum commercials out of 10
“Is that ALL?”
“Yes, that is all. That is all.” – The Golden Compass.