The Golden Compass (2007)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 12/7/07
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, Ian McKellan, cameos by Daniel Craig, Christopher Lee

The witches have a prophecy: that a child will come forth with the power to see the truth, and that she will lead the war against the oppressors of free will. The child is Lyra (12 year old Dakota Blue Richards), a tenacious and strong-willed orphan girl under the charge of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Asriel has proof that parallel universes exist - a notion that defies religious teachings and brands him a heretic by the sinister totalitarian religious government known as the Magisterium. In the pursuit of scientific knowledge, a device known as an alethiometer was created that allowed people to see the truth, but the church had all but one of the devices destroyed for obvious reasons. The last alethiometer, or golden compass, finds its way into the hands of Lyra, and she quickly becomes a key player in a powderkeg struggle of class, race, religion, and politics. Escaping the evil clutches of the seductively wicked Miss Coulter (played to perfection by Nicole Kidman), Lyra finds herself on the run with a band of roving Gyptians and comes under the protection of a giant Ice Bear named Iorek (Ian McKellan). The Gyptians are searching for a group of missing children that the Magisterium has kidnapped to perform dastardly experiments on. The Magisterium believes that the best way to eliminate free will and make children obedient is to tear their souls away, effectively making them mindless zombies. Lyra and her friends assault the lab facility and free the children, resulting in a savage battle between the Magisterium, the Gyptians, the Witches, and the Samoyeds. With their immediate freedom won, Lyra heads off to save Asriel from certain death while the audience is treated to the ending credits. Aaargh!!!

Yes, this film pulls a total "The Empire Strikes Back" maneuver with its "no, I am your mother" plot twist and cliffhanger ending. Except that we have no guarantee there will ever be a sequel! Box office receipts will ultimately tell, or the project will get squashed by all of the insane and hypocritical backlash from the religious right. Don't get me started on that, or I'll never finish writing this review...

First and foremost, the film is utterly spectacular to watch. The locales, scenery, machinery, creatures, and costumes are luscious to behold and convey a true sense of magic and wonder (exactly what the Magisterium wants to do away with). The acting is good and Dakota Blue Richards handles the role of Lyra with amazing strength and conviction. However, it's Nicole Kidman who steals the show with her ravenous portrayal of Miss Coulter. She insatiably devours every scene she's in with her wicked charms and beguiling sensuality. She is pure evil and she revels in it. Scoresby (the always enjoyable Sam Elliott) and Iorek make a great team, and the camaraderie of the rebels is heartfelt and sincere. Apart from the infuriating ending, where the film falls apart is in its disjointed execution. It feels like a collection of stunning set pieces strung together with no clear sense of continuity or direction. Probably because the film is trying to cover as many plot points as quickly as possible in a short amount of time, which is what the "Harry Potter" films have always been criticized for. Even so, I found those films easier to follow than this one. However, despite the apparent lack of narrative cohesion, the film is consistently intense and bears a constant sense of dread. The music score is appropriate sounding, but not particularly strong or memorable. The action sequences are exciting and occasionally shockingly brutal. Much like "The Chronicles Of Narnia" (2005), the film is incredibly violent and racks up a high body count, but the excessive use of animation and the lack of any visible bloodletting allows the film to get away with a PG-13 rating.

That's certainly not the only comparison that can be made with "Narnia." Both films utilize children and fantasy settings to insidiously disguise much darker intentions. While "Narnia" blatantly force-feeds Christian propaganda, "The Golden Compass" defiantly speaks out against the evil and corruption of organized religion (specifically the Catholic Church). This is far more palatable to me, but it certainly hasn't gone unchallenged. Perhaps the controversy will be good for sales? Still, I wish it were more straight-forward fantasy instead of social commentary, since the heavy-handed themes break the suspension of disbelief and force the viewer back into the real world. Apart from the narrative discontinuity, I found the film to be engaging and thoroughly fascinating, and I eagerly await future installments. The biggest encouragement right now is the fact that several scenes in the trailer didn't make it into the film, which may imply that they've already shot the sequel - or maybe they were just deleted scenes.