Sunday, February 10, 2008


I’ve read the first two installments of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (been looking for quite a while now, but have yet to find The Amber Spyglass in the bargain bins), and enjoyed both tremendously.
Pullman understands—as do the likes of directors Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro—that fantasy should also possess a certain sense of horror for it to be informed with substance, a darkness to give everything else (not the least of which, the light and the wisdom that accompanies it) a proper weight.
Obviously, I didn’t expect the film adaptation of The Golden Compass (originally titled Northern Lights) to be as substantial as the source material.
Sadly though, it feels like a child who’s suffered a botched intercision.

Now, on the plus side, let me just say that The Golden Compass looks fabulous, like Nicole Kidman the first time we see her in the film: the divinely sinister Mrs. Coulter, in that dress.
Like Coulter at the university banquet, the film that contains her is visually stunning, and has resulted in Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects. Here is a fantasy world that is amazingly realized, courtesy of a hefty budget (reportedly $180 million).
As much as I love Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust, The Golden Compass certainly looks a damn sight better. Compass, however, lacks not just the disarming charm of Stardust, it also lacks—as Mrs. Coulter apparently does—a certain sense of humanity.

For the most part, Compass feels like the ride Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) takes atop warrior ice bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by the brilliant Sir Ian McKellen). And though this sequence is one of the Compass bits that work, my comparison isn’t meant to be a flattering one.
In trying to fit all of the novel into the film’s 113-minute running time, director Chris Weitz (who also penned the script) treats us to a cavalcade of scenes that aren’t allowed to breathe, that aren’t given the time for the narrative (and the audience) to discover who these characters are and why they should warrant any attention or sympathy. The scenes only seem to take as long as is needed to get packets of information and heady concepts to the audience, before we’re whisked off to another locale and another handful of plot points.
Which is sad since Richards actually does a decent job at playing Lyra, the tale’s young heroine, and in a film like this, the young protagonist is always the key to fully enjoying and appreciating the material. If the child actor isn’t any good, chances are, the film falls apart.

In this case though, it’s the script that fails Richards, and most of the cast as well. 007 Daniel Craig is good as Lyra’s explorer uncle, Lord Asriel, as is Craig’s co-star in Casino Royale, Eva Green, as witch queen Serafina Pekkala (though Green does lack the gravity required for the film’s opening voice-over). Jim Carter also gamely gives his best shot at John Rhys-Davies, as Gyptian king, Lord John Faa.
But as good as these performers are, the truly exceptional ones are Sam Elliott as aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and the bears, Sir Ian, whose magnificently resonant vocal delivery captures the regal and fierce pride that informs Iorek, and Deadwood’s Ian McShane, who voices the bear king, Ragnar Sturlusson (renamed from Northern Lights’ Iofur Raknison so as to avoid confusion with Iorek).
Sadly though, there just isn’t enough Scoresby in The Golden Compass, and Ragnar has hardly been introduced to us, before he’s swept off the narrative’s board, and we’re off gallivanting towards the next plot point. Sir Ian at least, gets to unleash his inner ice bear, and it’s to Richard’s credit that she pulls off the scene where Lyra first meets Iorek rather admirably. Considering she was an inexperienced actress playing off a special effect made her performance all the more impressive.

When I first heard who The Golden Compass’ director was going to be, I couldn’t quite see why the choice was a proper fit. Yes, I loved Weitz’s screenplay for Antz, but the films Weitz actually had directing duties on were titles like the Hugh Grant-starrer About A Boy, the Chris Rock-starrer Down To Earth, and American Pie (though Weitz was uncredited for the last). Hardly the stuff of big budget fantasy films.
And if anything has been learned from some of the more recent cinematic entries in the genre, the director has to have a certain mindset where the special effects and the fantastic elements of the production are used as tools to enhance the narrative, the means to an end and not as the end itself.
Tragically (and despite the fact that Weitz first came on board as writer/director, then walked away from directing duties, only to return after Shopgirl director Anand Tucker came and went), Weitz seems to have gotten himself lost in both the story and the means by which the story is being told.

Even flawed as it is though, Weitz’s effort is possibly still one of the most substantive fantasy films yet, which is, of course, part of why it doesn’t work quite as well as it ought to.
The concepts are complex and weightier than your average wizards and warlocks fare, what, with souls externalized in the form of daemons, parallel worlds, and cosmic particles called “Dust,” the witches and ice bears seem like the terribly antiquated part of the equation.
Thus, much of The Golden Compass is exposition at the expense of character. And though Weitz has expressed a desire for an extended cut on DVD (which would have a running time of about two and a half hours), the theatrical cut sorely lacks a warmth it so desperately needs.
It also lacks that sense of horror I mentioned at the top of this review. There are just some scenes (particularly the reveal involving poor little Gyptian boy, Billy Costa, played by Charlie Rowe) that miss the mark, that fail to convey the inherent wrongness of the situation, given the norms of Lyra’s world.
And in a slightly similar vein, there is also a distinct lack of flourish in presenting us with the on-screen wonders we see. Yes, airships and the like are commonplace to that world, but they’re new to us (and to young Lyra as well, who is the audience’s proxy, after all), and yet most everything is treated as if it’s something we see everyday, as if it were as pedestrian as an apple in a dining table centerpiece.
Our first view of Scoresby’s ride is one such missed opportunity for a stirring money shot. And the climactic battle is frankly a disappointing sight as well.

Another shortcoming that bothers me is that Weitz never truly captures the deep ramifications of a life where one’s soul has a physical form outside of one’s own body. The intricate and intimate link between character and daemon doesn’t come across in any real and vital way. All we know for sure is that daemon and person feel the same thing, so if one dies, so does the other one (in the daemon’s case, in a burst of glittery CGI fairy dust).
Save for Lyra and Mrs. Coulter, we never quite get a proper sense of other characters’ daemons; if memory serves me right, Scoresby’s daemon Hester—voiced by Kathy Bates—actually only gets one line in the film, maybe two. Which seems like a terrible waste of Kathy Bates.
It’s also a terrible waste of the whole concept, when a person’s soul is reduced to a mere bunch of morphing pixels…

Clearly New Line’s shot at kick starting another fantasy franchise, by January 27, 2008, The Golden Compass had grossed a disappointing US total of just over $68 million. Its foreign box office though was a surprising $256 million, fully 78.8% of the film’s total cumulative box office of $325 million.
And though $325 million is a lot, so was that $180 million budget. Which puts a question mark over how New Line will approach the intended sequel, The Subtle Knife. Hossein Amini (who wrote the screenplays for Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers and Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove) had already been tasked to adapt the novel even before Compass hit cinemas, but given that it didn’t perform as well as the studio had hoped, there’s a sense of hesitancy on New Line’s part now.
In light of the recent kiss-and-make up with Peter Jackson, giving a green light for two new Tolkien films (The Hobbit and a bridging film between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy), New Line may feel even less charitable towards producing the second and third installments of His Dark Materials. Or at the very least be reluctant to throw as much money at it as they did at Compass.
Tolkien, after all, is already an established brand name for the studio, certainly a more reliable cash cow than Pullman (and without all that religious controversy hoo-hah on its coattails).

Still, I do hope New Line pushes through with completing the trilogy, giving them two more opportunities to get the material right. If they could only make more of an effort to get to the emotions and themes that inform the narrative, instead of the surface events that comprise the narrative, they would go a long way to justifying—and ultimately humanizing—all that expensive CGI so proudly on display.
That’s what His Dark Materials needs: more of its daemon back.

Parting shot: Third Dodgiest Cinematic ‘Do for 2007 (after Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men and Sacha Baron Cohen in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, both of which have reviews in the Archive): Simon McBurney, whose Magisterium meany Fra Pavel has a mop that looks like the hideous collision between a Trump comb-over and a Third Reich ‘cut.
See, kids? Bad guy = bad hair.
Thus endeth the lesson.

(The Golden Compass OS and images courtesy of

No comments: