At The Picture Show
Wordy, vague 'Golden Compass' doesn't hold up to other epics...or other movies,
for that matter
The Golden Compass
New Line Cinema
Director: Chris Weitz
Screenplay: Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Philip Pullman
Starring: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Sam
Elliott and the voices of Ian McKellen, Freddie Highmore, Ian McShane and
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Opens December 7, 2007
(out of four)
Thanks, Peter Jackson. Thanks a lot. Just look at what you've spawned.
I know, I know, you're an insanely talented filmmaker and you make three-hour
fantasy epics look easy. I can't fault you for that. But just look at the mess you've
caused. Now everyone thinks they can do it. Apparently, this kind of thing can't be
taught or even imitated.
Yes, like the special effects-laden action blockbuster
in summer and the please-give-me-an-Oscar biopic in the fall, the big fantasy epic
has become a tradition of the holiday season. In 2005, it was The Chronicles of
Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which was fine the first time but
got completely upstaged just a few days later by Jackson's own King Kong, which
made Narnia look like a Roger Corman production by comparison.
Then last year we (meaning me and the nine other people who saw it) had to suffer
through Eragon, whose 16% Tomatometer rating speaks for itself. And for this
magical holiday season, we get The Golden Compass, which writer/director Chris
Weitz has stripped of all magic, cohesion and intelligence. Come on, Peter
Jackson - I don't care if it's The Hobbit or something completely new, but once
you're done adapting that crappy Alice Sebold book (which will inevitably be
better than its source material), we need you back. At least once more, show these
people how it's done.
Apparently, Weitz thinks the way to go about it is through relentless exposition,
half-developed characters and action sequences that mean absolutely nothing. One
movie cannot define a filmmaker, but The Golden Compass certainly seems to
overwhelm Weitz, who candidly admitted that he couldn't pull off such a large-scale project when he first quit the film, before returning a year-and-a-half later
after his replacement, Anand Tucker, also quit.
Adapted from the first installment of Philip
Pullman's His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass is theoretically about a
young girl's struggle to retain her innocence (and her soul) against the
conspiratorial forces of authoritarian rule. Her name is Lyra (Dakota Blue
Richards) and, like everyone else in this world, she's accompanied at all times by
her daemon, which personifies her soul. When children are young, their daemons
can change shape and species before they eventually settle on one as the child
ascends into adulthood.
(They also, apparently, are good for whispering completely obvious hints of
advice that neither Lyra nor the audience needs.)
The ominous Magisterium - which represents a sort of neo-religious, theocratic
syndicate that intends to control people's thoughts and actions, though all
references to God and religion have been excised in the film version - is the
villain, and the powers-that-be have been secretly abducting children and trying to
separate them from their daemons, a grueling physical and spiritual process.
Of course, like those in religious or political authority who abuse their power, it's
all for the children's own good.
Now if only we understood - or better yet, felt -
what was actually at stake. Instead, we get loosely explained plot points that lead
to other loosely explained plot points. We don't get to explore anything. And for
all the exposition, we don't even really get to understand anything except in the
vaguest of terms. We understand only what we need to understand in order to
follow the plotline. Everything else is just details, and the screenplay conveniently
left those out.
What I'd really like to see is someone like Jackson - to use the most obvious
example - write a self-help book for up-and-coming filmmakers who want to
direct fantasy epics. Or maybe a 12-month training session, complete with a
leadership training retreat. As it is, we'll just have to settle for a few of my handy
1. When trying to set up a conflict or narrative dynamic intended to drive the story
forward for two hours, it helps if you explain what in the world you're talking
In The Golden Compass, cryptic terms or entities like "dust" and "Gyptians" are
thrown around without any significant explanation or exploration whatsoever. Nor
is there any real development of the things we can understand - like witches,
demons and thinly-veiled figures of religious authority. For a movie whose almost
every line of dialogue is expository, you'd think the script would have, at some
point, gotten around to explaining things to us.
On a side note, a script written by Oscar winner, Tony winner and Brazil co-writer
Tom Stoppard was rejected by Weitz. Just thought I'd mention it.
2. When you hire actors the caliber of Daniel Craig
and Nicole Kidman...use them.
In this case, Craig's heroic Lord Asriel - Lyra's noble uncle - all but disappears
from the movie about 25 minutes in. But even the little screen time that Craig has
is wasted on a severely under-written character. It's a waste of Craig's talent. And
Kidman, meanwhile, as the aptly named, evil Ms. Coulter, looks regal, cold,
calculating and appropriately ominous - but the development of her character is
such that she's supposed to walk around looking regal, cold, calculating and
appropriately ominous. So it's an easy trick.
3. Assume your audience is not among the Baby Einstein / Veggie Tales set.
Really, I don't care how cute and adorable the CGI animal sidekicks are - you
really mustn't make these adorable little creatures say stupid, obvious things that
both the audience and the characters have already figured out.
For example: If Lyra is in danger, don't have her daemon say, "We need to get out
Example No. 2: If a clearly devilish character is trying to explain away the
insidious doings of the film's villains, don't have her daemon say, "Liar!"
4. Do not, under any circumstances, have an animated polar bear with the noble,
kingly, naturally seductive British voice of Ian McKellen say to an 11-year-old
girl, "You want to ride me?"
It will only provoke laughter and discomfort.
When creating major action set-pieces - say,
between a talking Armored Bear who wants to regain his nobility by fighting his
greatest nemesis - you should probably make sure it has something to do with the
rest of the story. Otherwise, it's not a setpiece anymore - it's just gratuitous.
6. More Eva Green.
7. More Eva Green.
8. When designing talking, computer-generated animals - polar bears, for instance
- it would be best if they didn't conjure images of a certain animated mascot of a
certain delicious and world-famous soft drink. It's 2007 - let's put a little effort
into our CGI, shall we?
The best news, for all of us, is that the film also ends with a cheap set-up for an
inevitable sequel. So if it weren't already enough that the film was lifeless as it is,
Weitz has deprived us of even a simple payoff. Well-done.
Read more by Chris Bellamy