Sunday, December 02, 2007

"The Golden Compass" -- * *

I'm going to be completely honest: I didn't understand a lick of what was going on in "The Golden Compass." While I'm sure my lack of quickness was partly to blame, a big cause of the confusion is that there's no real attempt to explain it. Shit just keeps getting thrown at you, and if you haven't read the books, fuck you, fend for yourself. I got that everyone was after this girl and her compass, but I didn't follow who anyone was, why they were doing what they were doing, or what they were talking about. I understood things only in the most literal sense. For instance, I knew polar bears were fighting, but I never understood why. I totally acknowledge there are some (perhaps many) who will be able to get into this, but I'm not entirely embarrassed to say that I found myself more dumbfounded as each minute passed.

The Magisterium is mean and authoritative but who are they, and why do they exist? Who is Sam Elliot's old-fashioned cowboy, what is he doing in this fantastical world, and why is he helping Lyra? Why are these polar bears in a war against those polar bears? Are they even in a war with the other polar bears or are they just mad at each other? What the hell is going on with those witches up in the sky? What is "Dust"? Who are these pirates and what are they doing? Are they good or bad? What does this compass do? Truth be told, at the 70-minute mark I gave up on trying to follow it and just started vacantly staring at the pretty (and there is a bunch of pretty).

In fact, there's nothing emphatically bad about "The Golden Compass" and certainly nothing wrong with the craft. Visually, it's wondrous (though the CGI bears never once look remotely real), but not quite wondrous enough to be the film's raison d'atre. I do give it credit for never descending into dull territory, but even the fast-paced proceedings are delivered with relatively little passion. I had heard mentions from my friend who adores the books that there was much provocative anti-Catholic material, but the film seems to have drained out most-to-all of the religious content and keeps things relatively vague. Fans of Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig might also be disappointed to learn that neither actor gets much screen time or much to do; I was particularly disappointed that Kidman, in a villainous role, mostly just looks bored.

There are clearly many potentially interesting ideas going on here (I was particularly intrigued by the attaching of an animal spirit to every human character), but director and co-writer Chris Weitz doesn't seem to care if uninitiated audiences are able to grasp them. I generally don't think of myself as having the mindset of an old man when it comes to fantasy films; I'm a fan of the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" films, and though I had many problems with "Chronicles of Narnia," coherency and complexity wasn't one of them. I know it's a commonality in these films for characters to throw around made-up words and ideas in the context of this make-believe fantasy world being created, but here, I just couldn't keep up with the mythology and it seems 80% of what was coming out of the characters' mouths didn't make sense to me; I found "Southland Tales" much easier to follow. While I acknowledge I may be in the minority here-- most of my audience seemed fairly engaged and understanding-- I didn't have a fucking clue what was happening through most of "The Golden Compass."

"The Golden Compass" opens in approximately 4 bajillion theatres this Friday, December 7th.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read the books either, so it'll be interested to see it just to see for myself.

11:04 PM  

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