Golden Compass: “B” Rating At Best

Because of the controversy among evangelicals regarding the recently released movie, The Golden Compass, and the underlying trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman upon which the movie is based, it seemed logical to see it and review it. As it turns out, the controversy was unnecessary. Golden Compass gets a “B” rating at best, and all the talk may have given the film more credibility than it deserves.

In World Magazine, December 8 issue, Janie Cheaney reported that New Line Cinema, the studio that produced The Lord of the Rings movies, spent $250 million to bring Golden Compass to the screen. I doubt the movie will ever earn that, nor will it be remembered for long, like The Lord of the Rings movies.

Golden Compass starts with an impossible task: how to be a children’s movie with a PG13 rating. It’s next impossible task: how to use the talents of Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee and others in a meaningful way without giving them enough, or even any, meaningful screen time. Why do movie makers not understand the process by which an audience begins to empathize with a character? The movie’s third and final impossible task: how to tell a complex story, which originated in a 500-page novel, without enough dialog in 118 minutes.

Unlike the Harry Potter movies, Golden Compass must deal with several unfamiliar story ideas before the story gets in the way. Harry Potter dealt with magic, sorcerers and witches, things we all have some fictional experience interpreting. But the “parallel universe” theme of Golden Compass is a very slender thread in the science fiction genre (and equally a minor part of quantum physics). We were expected as an audience to meet, understand, and then empathize with an entirely new universe in less than two hours. As Lord of the Rings demonstrated, it takes longer.

Thus, Golden Compass has received a mediocre public reception. New Line may not be able to raise the money to bring a sequel to the screen, if that financing is dependent upon success of the first installment. This movie will not boost Pullman’s book sales, if that was the fear of some evangelicals.

The movie was imaginative, with one glaring exception. Sam Elliott appeared to be playing the same character in Golden Compass that he played in Ghost Rider. It appeared he was even wearing the same costume and using the same guns. Elliott’s character also appeared to be about equally sympathetic to the lead character in each movie, such that I had to look twice to see whether Dakota Blue Richards had morphed into Nicholas Cage.

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