The Golden Compass Leads to Nowhere

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By Josh Moss
josh@louisville.com


Too bad writer-director Chris Weitz doesn’t own an alethiometer, better known as a golden compass to common folks. If Weitz had one of these truth-telling contraptions, it would have told him that his new movie The Golden Compass — which opens December 7 — under develops almost every character to the point that it becomes hard to appreciate the stunning visual effects. Because with nobody to care about in this fantasy world, even scenes with battling armored polar bears lack an emotional punch.

The movie is based on British author Philip Pullman’s book Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in the United States) from the writer’s His Dark Materials series. There has been controversy about how the trilogy’s perceptions of religion would appear on screen, but honestly, moviegoers should simply be concerned that the film doesn’t live up to its hype. Weitz (About a Boy) has robbed it of any genuine drama.

The only thing worth savoring is newcomer Dakota Blue Richards’ performance as young Lyra Belacqua. She easily holds her own with powerhouses such as Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding) and Daniel Craig (Casino Royale) — though it’s worth noting that Craig’s Lord Asriel is on screen for, oh, less than ten minutes.

Blue Richard’s sass is perfect for Lyra, an adventurous 12-year-old in a world in which futuristic blimps soar in the sky, people’s souls trot next to them in the form of talking animals and Gobblers snatch up children and take them to a far away place. She attends an Oxford-like school and admires her “uncle” Asriel, who questions the authority of the governing body called the Magisterium. Asriel, despite the Magisterium accusing him of heresy, heads to the Far North searching for “dust,” which — like so many other things in The Golden Compass —we know nothing about.

Meanwhile, back on campus, Kidman’s Marisa Coulter — with ulterior motives — shows up in said futuristic blimp to recruit Lyra to travel to the Far North, too. Kidman is pretty believable playing evil, though the performance isn’t scary enough to haunt children’s dreams. Before she leaves home, the school’s master gives Lyra a golden compass, which only she can use to see the truth.

Along her voyage she meets witches, Gyptians, aeronauts, talking polar bears and plenty of other things kids will find amusing. The problem is that with limited history about all of them, everything seems tacked on. But, then again, nothing in The Golden Compass is explained. Why does Lyra know how to read the compass? What the hell is dust? Who are the Gyptians? What is the Magisterium?

Sure, the goal is to make a trilogy of films so all the questions can’t be answered in round one. But some sort of explanation is needed to understand what is going on, to care about Lyra’s journey. Instead, we sort of feel like Lyra talking to the Gyptian king.

“Why are we doing this?” she asks.
“We don’t know,” he replies.

1 ? fleur de lis out of 4
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