“The Golden Compass”: Dust to Dust

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass, based on the popular fantasy book by Philip Pullman, races forward with the utmost urgency. It wants to get to the end of the film and quickly. Full throttle it sends us to the climactic battle, or perhaps the several climactic battles. It’s the conclusion it’s betting on and in doing so forgets somewhere in between each action sequence that there’s a journey to focus on as well. Not to say that there aren’t some rousing moments or that it doesn’t get off on the right foot.

After the shaky prologue when we’re pretty much told the physical questions to every mystery the characters have to seek out the answers for during the course of the film or that along with the voice over they show you every supporting character we meet until we’re no longer taking the journey with our hero Lyra Belacqua, but we immediately become one of the adults that holds the secrets from Lyra – knowing things she won’t for sometimes half the film. And who wants to be that character in a movie? This was probably the biggest bump in the telling of Lyra’s story, it took away our chance to discover the world with her. It’s like giving you the end of The Sixth Sense at the beginning of the film in voice over.

But then the film settles in after a bit when Lyra, while hiding in a closet with her daemon, a small shape shifting animal that contains it’s human counterpart’s soul, stops a plot by The Magisterium that would have killed her Uncle Asriel, Daniel Craig playing a heretical Christopher Columbus type. But who is The Magisterium? A sneering bunch of black robed priest like people who wish to control your every action and thought. And oh, even though they cut down the supposed Catholic overtones from the book, it’s pretty obvious that Pullman has quite the beef with the Catholic Church and perhaps organized religion as a whole, but like most writers and film makers when it comes to vilifying the Church they fall on the easiest moment in history to make them look evil. The Catholic Church during the medieval era and the Inquisition. Instead of humanizing and allowing their human triats to come out, the first Magisterium we meet has the cringe inducing task of pausing dramatically before putting an evil emphasis on certain words. It’s like he’s Doctor Evil, only this isn’t a joke. Finally a villain worth our effort to hate comes into the picture, and this is the short time when the movie really thrives.


The beautiful Marisa Coulter, as embodied by Nicole Kidman who gives Marisa a serene kindness and a serious mean streak hidden underneath. When she takes our little Lyra with her to go to the Arctic North as her assistant, we like Marisa, but that mean streak shows itself and the fact that she could be in cahoots with a group of child kidnappers, well we start not to like her so much anymore. But there’s something even more important nagging at her. For before Lyra left she was given a Golden Compass that will tell the truth when any question is asked, but only one person can use it…guess who that is? And when Marisa finds out, things go really sour. During this part of the film I felt very much like the director Chris Weitz was allowing the spirit of Hayao Mayazaki to infiltrate the story. A young girl being brought into this world that she’s never seen before and finding out about ideas that are beyond her knowledge. What is Dust? Lyra knows it exists because her Uncle says so, but Marisa doesn’t want her to ask about it again. Here the movie takes it’s time and allows us to feel the relationship between the girl and the woman progress, and it’s truly the most interesting part of the film. I won’t tell you what happens but the moment this section of the movie comes to an end and she begins her journey to the North, so too does that sense of discovery that I was mentioning earlier end. Each character she meets and each situation she finds herself in happens so mechanically that the life of the film is overshadowed by the obvious fantasy elements the creators want to throw at us (many of which we’ve already seen in the prologue.) And we speed off toward that conclusion, like an Olympic runner wanting to win a medal. It isn’t to say there aren’t some grand sequences or cool moments. The end of the battle between armor clad polar bears is pretty amazing to watch, but in the end outside of the obvious reason the story is taking place (one which I will refrain from speaking about here), you never really understand why anyone is doing what they are doing. There are notions left vague, muddled and unclear. Something about free choice, Dust and separation from the daemons so that kids can grow up – grow up from what I didn’t know. Maybe logic. Some of the ideas kind of make sense, but when you start thinking about one of the ideas as a character’s goal then it starts to make less and less sense. Take for instance the Magisterium, they want to stop Asriel from discovering Dust, but at the same time they hope he discovers it so they can jump into parallel universes and take control of the parallel universes (did I mention that parallel universes exist?) They want to stop Asreil from discovering the Dust because it will mean that they have been lying to the people and that will mean their demise. Because the Dust…well, the Dust…you see it kind of floats through people from the sky and opens these portals and, well…it looks cool and glitters like gold particles…and…Okay, so I have no idea what Dust is exactly and what it truly means on a metaphorical level or what any of the characters hope to accomplish by discovering it or hiding it away. Maybe Dust symbolizes logic, which doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know, anyway it all takes a back seat to the chase and how the journey is taken, by boat then air ship then on the back of a polar bear. And since this Dust is the root of all of the characters’ actions, it seems like it would be a good thing to clarify why exactly it’s so important and what exactly it represents, but since the filmmakers backed down on the heavier anti-religious themes presented in the book we’re left with a climactic battle in the end and all the action, that has no soul, and for a film about staying one with your soul, it kind of missed it’s own point.

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2 Responses to ““The Golden Compass”: Dust to Dust”

  1. Josh Says:

    I have to agree with the tone of your review. It’s unfortunate that the first book in the brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy was turned into a somewhat hollow (moving) picture book, especially considering the depth that has been allowed to other tales of this kind.

    It was fun to see someone’s interpretation of the major scenes, but this is one movie that, unlike the Harry Potter movies, will have no impact on my memories or the way I imagine the characters.

    I would say that Lyra and Mrs. Coulter are exceptions, but the girl nailed the part as I imagined it, and Mrs. Coulter was always a dangerous version of Nicole Kidman in my head, but with dark hair.

    The lowest point, for me–aside from the slideshow pace–was the use of cliched character actors–giving Iorek the so-obvious voice of Gandalf, using Sam Elliot as the Texan, and putting Christopher Lee in the picture with another long robe and evil agenda. I know these people are talented, but it’s like trying to cast Shatner as a ship commander without somehow cheapening it with too much familiarity. It made the movie feel immediately like something we’d already seen a hundred times, which is too bad, because this story, given its due, is rare and excellent.

    The montage aside, Lyra & Mrs. Coulter’s scenes were the strongest, and it seemed as if Mrs. Coulter’s dialogue were written by a much more capable screenwriter. Lyra’s interaction with the evil bear king was also a high point.

    The books actually contain terrific passages that explain and expound upon dust, free will vs. control, parallel universes, etc.–in fact, there have been several academic works published about Pullman’s ideas. His statements about the church are also founded in relevant, modern terms that are not at all cheap or outmoded, but one would not be able to tell from the movie.

    To conclude, the books themselves are full of soul and weight. All of the endings are poignant and moving, and there is a powerful catharsis that holds the reader throughout the experience. The first book ends quite differently than the movie (the ending was simply cut), and the ending of the series weighed heavily on me for at least a week. The movie was an OK second-hand description of the main story elements, with some nice acting and memorable scenes, but I kind of expected it. In the US, the book had already been misrepresented a bit. The jacket of the UK version I read was black, with an austere painting of an expressionless young girl standing behind what might have been a communion table. The US version had a cute 7 year old riding a fuzzy polar bear, and they renamed it so it sounded kiddish, like ‘the sorcerer’s stone’. What can you do. If nothing else, those who pick up the books will be in for a great surprise.

  2. Phillip Says:

    It’s on the list of things to read. Thanks for the insights, my friend. Everything I’ve read about the toning down of the film from the director, who I normally like, and Pullman seemed like they were wearing fake smiles on their faces while saying how great the decisions the studios made were. I think a movie can only do well when it’s true to itself, and this one came off incredibly false.

    They did shoot the original ending, the cliffhanger of the book if you will, but ended up cutting it for the more “happy” and “precious” ending – that carried no weight whatsoever.

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