In a world ruled by a dictatorial Magisterium, that’s non-too-lenient with heretics, and each person is accompanied by their soul in the form of an animal spirit, Lord Asriel has decided it’s time to shake things up and prove that “dust” allows contact with other universes. He might be a getup-and-go kind of guy, but he’s not much of a guardian, and he’s left his niece, Lyra, as a ward of the university. She spends her time skipping courses and hanging out with lower class kids who’ve been disappearing of late. She also finds common ground with the lovely and powerful Marisa Coulter, who’s also just a little bit evil. Lyra, being of the good persuasion, escapes her clutches and sets out to find the missing children. It doesn’t hurt that she’s got a magical golden compass that can answer any question and a prophecy that says she’s the messiah. (No, scratch that last bit. This is supposed to be an atheistic movie. The prophecy only says she’s important… Where are these prophecies coming from? Hmmmm.) She quickly acquires a cowboy, a talking polar bear, and a band of protectors that are a cross between gypsies and pirates. She also makes friends with a really sexy witch. Can a young girl defeat a cruel theocracy and bring down God himself? Who knows because this picture doesn’t say. However, we do learn if she can save some kids.
With The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, promoting, if somewhat elusively, Christianity, and Harry Potter ignoring religious views one way or the other (though very peculiar people claim otherwise), I’d love to be able to say that The Golden Compass is a strong, atheistic fantasy, for balance if for no other reason. But it’s not. The book’s atheistic flavor has been stripped from the screenplay in order to sell tickets. Well, it is called “show business” and the public’s not fond of ideas contrary to what they’ve been taught by their mums.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) keeps its anti-religious sentiments vague when compared to C. S. Lewis’s blunt pro-Christian diatribe, but it’s hard to miss for anyone over the age of twelve (make that impossible to miss). Lyra and company are fighting The Church (with a capital T) and Asriel is seeking to bring down God himself. That’s as good as it gets, atheism-wise, in young-adult literature. However, it’s far from a manifesto for young atheists. Some of the free-thinkers are nearly as unpleasant as those they are fighting, plus there are destinies and prophecies, things that usually come with religious trappings. Still, the book has a refreshing point of view.
For the film, the Magisterium represents dictatorial institutions in general. The authority is spelled with a small “a” and their isn’t a religious reference in sight. Even so softened and diluted, the movie isn’t entirely toothless. Lyra is a bright girl who takes nothing on faith and thinks through problems. She rejects the narrow view of life that she’s being pressured to accept, and it’s made clear that forcing upon anyone what is “in their best interest” is a crime of tremendous proportion. That’s a strong condemnation of religion, for anyone who already realizes that church fathers have, through the years, stifled thought, jammed blind faith upon the populous making them weak and unable to act, squeezed the same people into predetermined social niches, and controlled them…for their own good and the good of their soul. Of course if you already realize that, then it is disappointing that it is not clearly espoused on the screen, and if you don’t realize that, then nothing in the The Golden Compass is going to help you make the connection.
What you really have here is another standard fantasy movie, something of a cross between The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. Like the latter, it’s about a sharp, independent young person growing up and facing the joy and cruelty of the adult world. Like the former, it takes place in a parallel universe with talking animals, and the main character keeps getting saved when she should be saving herself. The Golden Compass is a skillfully crafted film, with spectacular effects, and vast and beautiful vistas. CGI characters have come a long way in a short time and I can’t see there’s much farther they can go. The armored bears are magnificent. The acting is also a plus for the production, matching the best of the Potter films. Kidman is a slinky ocean of evil, though other advertised actors (Daniel Craig, Eva Green) are hardly in the film. Not that anyone matters besides young Dakota Richards. She dominates the movie, and is one of those child actresses that casting agents dream of. She’ll wrap you into her story.
The Golden Compass is a fun fantasy flick. It’s better than The Chronicles of Narnia and three of five Harry Potter movies, though it is like them all in kind. It isn’t terribly deep and it won’t change anyone’s mind about anything. Watch it for a fine lead, some cool blimps, and ferocious bears, not for a message.
The US Catholic League has called for a boycott of The Golden Compass. It’s spokesman admits that the religious themes have been watered down for the movie but fears that watching the picture will cause children to read the books.
Yup, you don’t want children reading. And you particularly don’t want them reading anything but stories that strictly adhere to dogma. Hey, isn’t that what the evil organization in the books and the movie says?