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The Golden Compass: Visually Cool, Otherwise Frustrating

The His Dark Materials fantasy books by Philip Pullman may be well-written and mesmerizing, but as a cinematic experience, the movie version of the first book doesn't really have two CGI legs to stand on. I've never read the books, in part because I wanted to critique The Golden Compass for what it is: a film. I don't think allowances should be made for the movie based on the quality of the books — they're two different mediums. And after seeing The Golden Compass, I'm not convinced this particular story should have ventured into the movie world at all.

The story follows Lyra, an orphaned girl raised by scholars who receives a golden compass allowing her to see the truth of things. She embarks on an adventure involving daemons, armored bears, cowboys and gyspsies (gyptians). Along the way, she falls in with an evil icy lady (Nicole Kidman) who's trying to "help" children by taking away their ability to think freely. She determines to rescue the children from this fate and in the meantime she makes friends and battles various other evildoers. Then the movie basically alludes to how cool the next few movies will be and the credits roll. For more of my thoughts on the film,

Yes, the visuals are very cool. Talking armored bears are very cool. Shapeshifting daemons that follow around each human are neat to watch. Other aspects of this fantasy world, like the flying Skyferry, are whimsical. But these don't add up to a satisfying end product. Discussing the performances — besides Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, in a pretty much flawless turn — is mostly pointless. Nicole Kidman is great in her role, but she can't save this movie, and Daniel Craig is in the film for approximately eight minutes.

This is not merely the opinion of someone unfamiliar with the novels. I attended the screening with YumSugar, who knows all the His Dark Materials books, and she was equally frustrated by the movie. I believe the word she used was "boring." There is an epic battle toward the end, with a roaring bear and swooping witches and yet . . . still boring. In addition, Yum mentioned that the general feeling of the movie is cold and clinical, that she expected "a tiny bit of warmth" from it. She noted that much of the book was smooshed haphazardly together, lending a rushed feeling to the whole thing. Understandably, long and involved novels made into movies don't have the luxury of time to develop all the necessary storylines and characters. But in my opinion, if one cannot achieve any kind of cohesive storyline in the film version of a book, perhaps that film should not be made. To quote Yum, "As someone who’s read the books, I felt there wasn’t enough character development. I can't imagine what you must have felt like."

The most infuriating aspect of the whole thing is the ending which, according to Yum, cuts off a few chapters before the book does. After hours of random adventures, we listen to Lyra list off all the exciting things she has to take care of in the future. I figured this meant that we would experience all these things with her in the final few minutes of the movie or something, because no way would they just end the movie there, with Lyra explaining how they could tie up their loose ends. But no. There are allusions to how great the second movie will be and then blackout. The entire film, then, is one big prologue for the next installment. And while that's true for many a serial movie, at least some films that are part of a trilogy can stand alone as one complete story arc. The same cannot be said for The Golden Compass. So, if this is merely one long setup for the second movie and it's not a great movie on its own, it feels a lot like a waste of time.

Photos courtesy of New Line Cinema

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snowysakurasky snowysakurasky 8 years
I didn't like her acting either (young female lead) only Nicole Kidman was enjoyable to watch. Admittedly, I don't read Harry POtter or LOTR (or these books) because fantasy is just not my thing. But I've watched some of those movies and they were pretty good for character development, cohesion and suspense. So this was disappointing. (Not that I expected much since we watched it on a whim.) I guess its not a great idea to make a movie of a popular book especially when you cut out a lot of the 'message' or idea. (The religion thing in this case.) Or did they do that with Harry Potter too? (Since I didnt read the books i don't know...)
wtigerior wtigerior 9 years
The Golden Compass was a bad movie. The young female lead could not act thus, making the movie a pain to watch. However on the positive side, the visual graphics were good and the storyline was straightforward. I did not read the book but managed to understand what was going on. If you are planning to watch this movie for the sake of Craig David and Nicole Kidman, they did not appear as much in the movie. A huge disappointment and a waste of my money.
ashleygaidhlig ashleygaidhlig 9 years
I wasn't familiar with the books, but my friend was and we were both disappointed. I was bored and got confused, and she thought that it didn't follow the books too closely and missed out a lot of information. There was well too much going on so I didn't like it at all!
syako syako 9 years
Oooh oooh. I disagree with everyone's negativity. I saw it today with my hubby and LOVED it. It was fun, visually exciting, and not boring or frustrating at all. And my husband - who hasn't read the books - followed the storyline very well and had no confusion or problems and absolutely loved it too. Of course his favorite scene was the ice bear fight. That was pretty awesome. Ok, just had to share my thoughts.
bugness bugness 9 years
I also have to point out that while I was reading book 2 and 3, I couldn't help but think how incomplete Subtle Knife and how extensive Amber Spyglass would be in movie form. And after seeing this movie hack the storyline to bits, I really don't have much hope for the next two movies, if they get made... in fact, I think I'd rather not see them. :(
bugness bugness 9 years
While I embraced the concept of not letting an institution shape your beliefs and morals, I really just loved the books all around. They filled me with so many different emotions, and I fell in love with the characters on many different levels. Yes, the movie fell short, but not just in areas of religion, but it fell short on character relationships. So many large character-driven plot points were missing and mixed up. I mean, Ma Costa? I LOVED her backstory in the book, but it was completely missing. Mostly, I think the movie was just pretty. It was an embellishment on what I'd visualized while reading. The actors did a good job. The director, not so much... Really, it fulfilled my biggest hope-- that my dad would like it enough to read the books. Mission accomplished.
syako syako 9 years
I'm pretty sure I read in the New Yorker that Pullman is, in fact, an atheist. But you are right that just because someone doesn't believe in organized religion does not make them an atheist.
luckyEmmie luckyEmmie 9 years
I loved these books, and their commentary on the dangers of organized religion. I'll definitely go see this, but it sounds like it not only sanitizes the plot, but actually completely changes it... I'm really wondering how they'll translate the second and third books (my personal favorites) when their plots follow so directly from what was CUT OUT in the Golden Compass movie. It should be added, I think, that just because someone does not support the concept of organized religion doesn't make them an athiest. An athiest is someone who does not believe in the existence of a higher power. And I honestly don't think that Pullman was singling out the Catholic Church, like so many people believe-- I think he really means all organized religion.
lucy76 lucy76 9 years
The whole controversy and the white-washing of the film saddens me. I love these books! They're fantastic and far superior to Narnia. I enjoyed much more than the Lord of the Rings too. They should have gotten Peter Jackson to make the films. I did enjoy the film, but as a superfan of the books, I was disappointed. I really want the movie to do well though as I'm dying to see the Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass make it to the big screen. I found that they were better, darker novels than Golden Compass and not really kids books either.
shouldbeworking shouldbeworking 9 years
People should be able to state their opinions through their art. Both sides need to respect that.
j2e1n9 j2e1n9 9 years
Yes, read the book.
Karma-Co Karma-Co 9 years
Not a fan... Will not watch the movie.
syako syako 9 years
But Pullman aside - the fact that they wouldn't include that aspect in the film is just - well, pathetic. It's what's in the book and for fear of "boycotts" they leave it out. That's what I meant about tolerating ideas... am I confusing you completely? hehe. I think I may be confused!!
Renees3 Renees3 9 years
Personally I tend to not look into the personal lives on authors as much as possible so as to not deal with this sort of thing. I don't care what you think, if I like your book, then I like it. On a totally separate note, my boyfriend (an athiest) LOVES the flying spagetti monster and has the sticker (the only one) on his car.
lilegwene lilegwene 9 years
Syako -- "I know that it's not pleasant, but I believe it's a great poke to the idea that the institutionalization of religion is not pretty. In fact, in can be down right evil. I hate that we live in a culture than can't tolerate ideas other than mainstream." That was what I meant as my reference point. I completely believe that people should be allowed to carry any theological position out there (Flying Spaghetti Monster anyone?). However, that is not what Pullman does with his writing. He has made it quite clear through his fiction novels and his personal, NON-FICTION, beliefs that people following an institutionalized church, or more concisely the Catholic church, are wrong. His narrow-mindedness is what I consider "disgusting and poisonous."
PJ-PJ-PJ PJ-PJ-PJ 9 years
"basically I feel that whether you believe in God or not, you can enjoy a bit of young adult literature without shaking your beliefs. That's what I meant about ideas other than mainstream." Syako, I agree. I always read books like these growing up & it never made me doubt my faith in God. I'm one of the only adults in my entire family who sticks up for the younger generation's reading materials & it gets heated at times. (Many of my aunts & uncles are from deep within that "Bible Belt" style of thinking, so you can imagine.) I'm not a huge fan of organized religion either. My dad always taught me to think for myself. On the flip side, I do enjoy a good Sunday School lesson now & then, but I know that I don't have to agree with everything, just because a teacher, preacher, or priest uttered the words. I believe that God gave me a brain & he wants me to use it. As for this movie, I've been wanting to see it, but I appreciate Buzz's straight review. I might wait to hear some other reviews first. At the least, I'll just wait until I can rent it. Happy movie going & book reading!
Food Food 9 years
I loved loved loved the books — although I must admit I felt he was a bit heavy-handed with the whole atheist thing in book three, it was sort of like oh btw, in case you didn't get the symbolism, smack here it is, which sort of ruins the ending of the series for me — and was looking forward to this film for ages. however the movie was just lacking. It wasn't fully disappointing or unwatchable, it was just sort of a let down. I left the theater trying to convince myself that it wasn't bad, afterall the performances are great and it's sort of cool to look at, and I kept trying to convince myself that it was a movie for the fans and that perhaps non-book readers just wouldn't "get it". however after giving it some thought, i couldn't do it. It fell way short of my expectations. Plus the omission of the ending made me angry and frustrated, and like buzz said, even though i knew the characters, in the film i couldn't see why they were interacting the way they were, or why i should even care about their relationships. Having said that, I hope it does really well in the box office because if it doesn't, they're not making #2 or 3, and now that we've had a huge movie setup, I want to see it come to an end.
syako syako 9 years
What do you mean? I'm confused about the comment about my statement... Yes, he is an atheist, but I never felt his atheism forced down my throat during his FICTION novels. I actually agree with him in the fact that when church becomes an institution it is a dangerous being. And I don't believe that is how God intended his followers to worship Him. But I'm digressing - basically I feel that whether you believe in God or not, you can enjoy a bit of young adult literature without shaking your beliefs. That's what I meant about ideas other than mainstream.
lilegwene lilegwene 9 years
syako, it is one thing to have a different opinion, and quite another to tell other people that theirs is wrong. That is essentially what Philip Pullman did. LilPeaPod, the books were controversial because the author, Pullman, made them so. He was (is) very outspoken in being against the church, and he called C.S. Lewis' books (Chronicles of Narnia) "one of the most disgusting and poisonous things I've ever read" because of its references to religion. In my opinion, his books start out well and interesting, but they end up being poorly written. It loses momentum, and the anti-theological moment he seemed to be working toward is glossed over in a few lines. Reviewer Alan Jacobs was a little more critical; "In his attempts to diminish God, Pullman ends up diminishing his own story. When the Almighty’s Regent, “a being whose profound intellect had had thousands of years to deepen and strengthen itself, and whose knowledge extended over a million universes,” is ruined because he can’t resist a seductive babe, or when Asriel attacks the Deity with a hovercraft straight out of Star Wars, it is not the absurdity of Christian doctrine that one contemplates." And I agree, but I encourage everyone to form their own opinion!
kristyrk kristyrk 9 years
I seriously don't get the whole boycott issue.
Seraphim Seraphim 9 years
i'm reading the book currently and i'm almost done, i'm most definitely going to see this!!! :)
alikat07 alikat07 9 years
I enjoyed the books, and was surprised they would choose to make them into a movie... I just had and still have a hard time visualizing it as working. I will most likely go see this movie for the visual affects and to see how they made it work, but I'm not really expecting to love it.
Phasekitty Phasekitty 9 years
The way you feel about this, Buzz, is kind of how I felt about the second Pirates. All set up, no story. And I definitely don't want to sit through that again. In the interest of my massive love for adaptations, I'll get around to reading the books in the new year (there are still too many on my "must read now" bookshelf to get to it this month!) and Netflix this one. Thanks for the great review! :)
Linda-McP Linda-McP 9 years
Buzz, I, too, love your honest, straightforward reviews. The Golden Compass (and particularly the books on which it is based) has stirred up a lot of controversy among various religious groups who are urging a boycott of the film. Ironically, as you point out, the film may actually suffer from it's lack of religious commentary.
syako syako 9 years
great! you won't regret it.
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