Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The Golden Compass (2007)
(Image from IMP Awards)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Last year's adaptation of the first part of Phillip Pullman's much lauded (but somewhat overrated) blasphemous fantasy trilogy was met with indifference by audiences and apparently pretty much sunk New Line Cinema as an independent studio. The marketing didn't really sell the story too well, focusing as it did on the films visual aspects. And that's probably because the film itself doesn't sell its story particularly well either.
'The Golden Compass' (aka The Northern Lights) takes place in a parallel universe and tells the story of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young orphan girl living in Oxford's Jordan College. This universe is somewhat like ours, only here people's 'souls' exist in physical form alongside them as talking animal 'daemons', and society and technology are reminiscent of the 19th century but with steampunk sensibilities. Lyra's uncle, Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig), is a scientist looking into the nature of a mysterious substance called 'dust' and its relationship to parallel universes, but he is opposed by the powerful Magisterium (i.e. the Church).
Meanwhile children are being grabbed off the street by the so-called 'Gobblers'. When Lyra is invited by the alluring but sinister Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to join her in London and mingle with high society, she begins an adventure to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers, an adventure that sees her hooking up with the nomadic 'Gyptian' people and traveling to the north where she meets the mighty polar bears and Witches - including bear king Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan) and witch Seraffina Pekkala (Eva Green), as well as the charismatic aviator Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott). Lyra has one very handy tool to aid her on her quest - an alethiometer, an arcane device that tells its user the truth.
That piss poor summary only scratches the surface. Needless to say it's considerably more complicated and eventful than that, but hopefully the words above will provide some idea of what this movie is about.
As an adaptation, 'Compass' falls short, coming across as a breezy summary of the source material, which truth be told isn't very cinematic (at least in terms of structure) to begin with. The story stumbles from one scene to the next without much cohesion, and is never all that gripping as a narrative. On the one hand, it feels rushed; on the other, the book admittedly has lots of leaden bits that probably wouldn't have been all that compelling on screen! Taken on its own terms as a film, I can't imagine the storyline being all that clear to neophytes, and the very clunky introductory narrative (attempting to channel Fellowship of the Ring) doesn't work all that well. And yet, despite not being particularly accessible it's not exactly awash with thematic depth either, with the religious elements being toned down - direct references to the church are absent - and the importance of dust never being rammed home (though, I'll have to concede that they could have been planning on doing this in the sequels).
The screenplay isn't the only thing that's middle of the road however. The film is generally devoid of atmosphere and key moments seem to lack any real dramatic punch. The production values are adequate but generally unimpressive - sets and costumes don't have that lived in, "real world" feel that separate the great fantasy films from the also-rans. It doesn't exactly transport you to another world because it all feels fake. The effects are also a mixed bag, generally bland and unimpressive. I'm also really tired of lame CGI animals; did they really have to be CGI in every shot? The few action sequences present are decent but barely get the pulse racing - there's a big battle at the end that is short and mildly exciting, but that's about it. It's all tied together by a fairly generic and forgettable musical score.
Dakota Blue Richards was a casting coup as she impresses throughout and perfectly captures the impertinent and sharp tongued spirit of the character in the book. Sam Elliott is spot on as the aviator Lee Scoresby (strange that Pullman apparently imagine Samuel L. Jackson in this role!). It's also great fun to hear Ian McShane (from Deadwood, cocksucker!) as the evil polar bear Ragnar Sturlusson. The other major polar bear character, Iorek Byrnison, is quite well played by Ian McKellan, though it does seem to be a paycheck performance. Eva Green is stunning and physically just right (wink wink) for the role of the witch queen Serafina Pekkala, and she also has an appropriate 'otherworldly' quality about her. Nicole Kidman is a natural for the icy Mrs. Coulter, though hers also seems to be a half hearted performance for the most part. As for Daniel Craig, he's barely in the film and never really registers.
Overall, a decent film but nothing to write home about. I can't imagine fans of the book being too pleased. Despite the stronger source material, it's a step down from say "The Chronicles of Narnia", and falls well short of its New Line stablemate. The anti climactic ending is really a slap in the face as well given that the prospect of the sequels coming to fruition seem somewhat remote at this point.