Kevin Andrew Murphy December 10th, 2007
I just went to see The Golden Compass, along with a couple other friends, who all decided to see it despite being advised by one friend that the movie made no sense and by another that he didn’t want to see it because he hadn’t liked the book.
I have the book, but on the “I’ll read it when I get around to it” shelf. But it was a nice outing with friends and I wanted to see airships and Nicole Kidman in a series of improbably lovely costumes. And going in with such low expectations, I was not disappointed, except by everything else.
First off, well, my biggest criticism is what I said after the movie was over: “I suppose it will all make more sense after we read the book and watch the expanded version on DVD.” This was after watching a nearly two and a half hour movie, mind you. I’m not certain whether to blame the screenwriter, the film editor or both, but there seemed to be a concentrated effort to shoehorn in every significant scene in the book, regardless of the exposition or transition or set-up for character motivation.
As it stands, the movie has the worst case of “beloved child” syndrome I’ve ever seen. The protagonist, Lyra (and I’m probably wrong on the spelling), wanders around and simply bumps into people who decide to fight and die for her “Just because.” I can understand it with the head witch, since she’s at least got a prophecy to go on, but she’s still canny enough to check out whether the kid can read the Golden Compass. But Sky Captain Wild Bill? I’m blanking on the name of character, but if you took an old American character actor, had him play Wild Bill as conceived of by someone who’d only seen British Wild West shows, gave him a jackrabbit familiar (voiced by Cathy Bates) and then made him an airship captain…well, that’s who we’ve got, who not only immediately takes a liking to this random kid, but offers to take her along in his airship, and also tips her off to the location of an alcoholic talking bear, who is less entertaining than he sounds. The bear decides to follow the kid because she finds his armor, but the only reason they aren’t immediately blown away by the Cossack police is because the sea gypsies keep randomly appearing whenever the cavalry is needed. Even in the middle of the frozen glacial wastes.
Then there’s the Magisterium. I understand it’s supposed to be the unholy spawn of the Catholic church and Big Brother, but if you’re going to spirit away kids to do insane arcane medical experiments on them, there must be a more convenient place than an ice sheet in the middle of the Norway analogue. But more than that, why steal children when you can just buy them? Or get parents to give them to you for free? There must be a few parents who’ve already drunk enough of the Kool-aid that they’d hand over their children no questions asked, rather than steal the child of the well connected sea gypsy matron? Or the kitchen boy from the university where there are loads of nosy people just looking for a mystery to crack?
Of course, the number of brain dead people is pretty amazing. There’s horror movie stupid. Then there’s opera stupid. Then there’s this. One really wonders what the scholars are thinking to let their child of prophecy go running around rooftops with the cast of Oliver at the beginning of the movie. One also sort of wonders whether a world with all sorts of arcane science wouldn’t be able to figure out who poisoned a wine decanter if just by taking fingerprints. And the uspurping Bear King? Does he know that “gullible” is not in the dictionary?
Then there’s the trouble of giving your protagonist an amazingly useful power and forgetting to use it. Lyra gets a Golden Compass, which once she figures it out is basically a deluxe Magic 8 Ball that can answer any question, no problem. So when later in the movie, the wicked Mrs. Coulter says “Lyra, I’m your mother!” wouldn’t it be prudent or least sensible to twiddle with your Golden Compass and ask “Is that psycho really my mommy?” Of course this scene may have been left on the cutting room floor, so it’s not possibly quite at the level of the recent Heroes finale where Peter forgets he can walk through walls if he wants to and instead dramatically uses his telekinesis to rip the door off a bank vault, getting a nosebleed in the process. But still….
I should probably not get into the other troubles but the line “Tell the children to get their warmest coats!” is going to stick with me for a while. You get a bunch of kids who were spirited away to an icy wasteland via airship and you expect them to walk to safety? Of course an electrocuted traumatized child was able to walk all the way to the next valley and hole up in an unheated trapper’s cabin without freezing to death, so I suppose anything is possible, but….