Cinematic Flashback: The Golden Compass (2007) Review
There is a world where witches rule the northern skies, where ice bears are the bravest of warriors, and where every human is joined with an animal spirt, who is has close to them as their own heart. But this world is dominated by the Magisterium, which seeks to control all humanity and who’s greatest threat is a golden compass, the one child destined to posses it, and my “cinematic flashback” review for the movie The Golden Compass.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS
“There are worlds beyond our own – the compass will show the way”
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Chris Weitz
Starring: Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliot, Eva Green, Ian McKellen, and Dakota Blue Richards
Run Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: December 7th, 2007
It was no ordinary life for a young girl: living among scholars in the hallowed halls of Jordan College and tearing unsupervised through Oxford’s motley streets on mad quests for adventure. But Lyra Belacqua’s greatest adventure would begin closer to home, the day she heard hushed talk of an extraordinary particle. Microscopic in size, the magical dust–discovered in the vast Arctic expanse of the North–was rumored to possess profound properties that could unite whole universes. But there were those who feared the particle and would stop at nothing to destroy it. At the center of it all, lies Lyra, her strict / adventurous uncle Lord Asriel, an influential and wicked woman Mrs. Coulter, and the mysterious device bestowed upon the young girl. Catapulted into the heart of a terrible struggle, Lyra seeks out forced to seek aid from clans, ‘gyptians, and formidable armored bears. And as she journeyed into unbelievable danger, she had not the faintest clue that she alone was destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.
Before being bought out by Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema was the film studio behind the massive success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), setting the movie world of fire with global popularity and the eager expansiveness in adapting literary novel series into potential (and lucrative) movie franchises. This was even further promised with the rising popularity of the Harry Potter films and the success of Walt Disney’s adaptation of the first Chronicles of Narnia film, which prompted the age of Hollywood studios buying up YR / YA novel properties (with most of them failing within their first feature installments).
With the promise of success, New Line Cinema procured the film rights to Pullman’s fantasy novel trilogy (His Dark Material) and released The Golden Compass in 2007 as the first adapted motion picture in a planned movie trilogy. Directed by Chris Weitz, The Golden Compass definitely has the studio backing behind it, which is something quite different from most other YR / YA film adaptations released around this time. Meaning that the movie looks quite impressive and visually stunning throughout as if there were no “cut corners” to make the feature look cheap or produced “on a dime”. There’s a great sense of visual effects, which are really good in the movie, as well as the production settings (concept design work and all) and the costumes attires for each of the character respectfully. In addition, the story being told in The Golden Compass has quite interesting and very complexed; luring viewers into an imaginative, yet alternative world that feels vey much like our own, but has that “otherworldly” feel to it. I read the book before I saw the movie (went to see in theaters on its opening weekend) and was quite intrigued with the ideas of the animal spirt daemons and the larger narrative arc being told. Plus, the cast of the movie really got me excited about the movie, but more on that below.
What went wrong with The Golden Compass is in undertaking of studio interference of desiring a different version to what Weitz originally wanted it to be. How so? Well, Weitz stated that his original script allowed more time for more breathing room and to expand upon certain aspect of Pullman’s source material, including character development, world-building, and exposition. Unfortunately, New Line Cinema deemed Weitz’s script to be slower paced and forced him to scrap a lot of what was not “essential” to the plot, as well as toning down the anti-religious subtext, which (as many know) is was subtle importance to Pullman’s novel. Perhaps because of the books make the Magisterium as a dominating power that “fearing any truth but their own”, which is an unmistakable illusion to the Catholic Church and the controversy with those of the Christian faith over Pullman’s story for being presented in a movie that’s presented as a kid’s fantasy adventure. In addition, they overruled Weitz (and his team) on certain casting decisions as well as editing the feature to under a two-hour runtime. This also resulted in several reshoots and rearrangement several sequences to make the feel coherent.
How did this all result in the movie? Well, it (to be quite honest) it ruined it…. completely. The final result of The Golden Compass feels quite disjointed, despite having a lavishing presentation and the necessary star power behind it. Characters are uneven, thinly-sketched, and forgettable, while the underlining religious themes are muted down (it’s still present, but watered down from the original source material). The story being told also seems quite wonky and unsure, with the movie pulling certain plot threads this way and that in a very convoluted manner. To be sure, the story Pullman’s His Dark Material is quite mature (mature meaning complexed) than the average fantasy adventure for young readers / teen adaptation endeavors. This includes threads like Lyra’s quest, Asriel’s mission, the Magisterium’s agenda, Mrs. Coulter’s association with the Magisterium, Iorek Byrnison’s redemption of his ice-bear kingdom, and the subtext discussion of Dust and the Northern Lights connection. Thus, tying everything together is the “key” to making a theatrical motion picture and The Golden Compass doesn’t do that; floundering its narrative structure and bareboned plot beats, which makes the film confusing and derivate at the same time. Even the actual Golden Compass, which is the film’s namesake, seems irrelevant to the film’s narrative.
To me, what was most disappointing about this movie is the simple fact that the film’s ending wasn’t the true ending of the story. To be sure, the ending of Pullman’s novel ends on a more ominous conclusion that what the movie ends on, which was a bit more happier / optimistic note to end on. They (Weitz and his team) did actually shoot and edited the scene in post-production (you can see bits and pieces of the scenes in the film’s movie trailers). The problem? Due to the studio’s involvement in reworking the film, The Golden Compass’s original ending was scrapped and was promised to be include in the follow-up sequel as the opening sequence. Personally, I don’t care if The Subtle Knife (the second novel in Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy) ever came to cinematic light (even today) …. I just want an extended version of The Golden Compass with the true ending added back in!
The cast in the movie is actually pretty good, with plenty top priority / recognizable actors and actress to populate the film with Pullman’s characters. This includes talented individuals like Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, Same Elliot, and Ian McKellen play more on the feature’s larger supporting players, which are key to the narrative arc of Pullman’s story. All give quality performance, but (much like what I mentioned above) are stripped down to the bare essentials of making the film work within the confines of under a two-hour runtime. Thus, the character developments for most of these characters are pretty thin and are only interesting because of the actor / actress that plays them; elevating their character build slightly.
Even minor / smaller roles had plenty of seasoned acting talents like Kristin Scott Thomas, Christopher Lee, Kathy Bates, Jim Carter, Derek Jacobi, and Ian McShane. Still, despite having these fine selections of actors and actresses at the film’s disposals, a lot of these particular character serve as very minor importance in one or two key sequences (some even less than that). Collectively, the cast in The Golden Compass is what may have enticed viewers to see the movie, but most (if not all) get shortchanged and are wasted on a project endeavor like this. And that…is a crying shame.
Perhaps the weakest performance in the movie would actually have to be main character of the feature, Lyra Belacqua, who is played by a then young actress Dakota Blue Richards. The problem is that this was her theatrical acting debut in Hollywood and (much like a lot of newly minted young acting stars) seems quite unsure of herself and needs up being flat, uninteresting, and lacking depth within her performance of Lyra. Richard did go on with her acting career, but her role in The Golden Compass is bland and very vanilla; acting as the stereotypical young hero architype (just with some inexperienced acting).
When it’s all said and done, The Golden Compass is another perfect example of Hollywood trying to emulate the YA success of Potter and Narnia films, but never reaches its full potential. The visuals were there, the star power was there, and scope and grandeur of this cinematic “other” world was clearly represented, but the movie just simply fails to spark entertainment value within its tale. Maybe it was the complexed story being told, the anti-religious overtones, the choppy narrative structure, unfulfilled character builds and motives, or the disappointing ending that drove the film down from being another “one and done” feature that never got its franchise tag. Thus, given its low box office numbers and poor reception from both critics and moviegoers, the idea of releasing the two planned sequels to The Golden Compass were eventually cancelled; leaving this iteration of Pullman’s tale left woefully unfinished. Let’s hope that’s BBC new series His Dark Materials does a better job in adapting Pullman’s novel series that than this particular disappointing fantasy adventure.
Cinematic Flashback Score: 2.8 Out Of 5
Fun Fact: Author George R.R. Martin once cited this movie as one of the reasons he wanted Game of Thrones (2011) to be a television series, rather than his books being turned into movies.