Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Movie Review: The Golden Compass

Prior to the movie’s release, I had no awareness at all of Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials” from which the movie “The Golden Compass” was based on the first book. After the wildly successful Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter adaptations, Hollywood seemed still to be looking for the next mega-franchise fantasy series to part the devoted fans of these books from their hard earned cash. Some like “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was half way decent to watch while others like “Eragon” made me think of the missed opportunities they could have done better. “The Golden Compass” which saw local release in the cinemas recently was the latest to be added to the list of movies to fill in the void left behind by the LOTR series.

In “The Golden Compass”, audiences enter a parallel world where humans walked around with physical representation of their souls in the form of an animal companion. The companion or “daemons” as they are known in this world could act autonomously and speak for or with it’s human owner. Part voice of conscious, part extension of the human, the daemons were so intricately tied to it’s human owner that any harm inflicted on it would cause pain to the human and vice versa. This parallel world also has talking armored polar bears that rule over the vast Artic snows capes near the north pole as well as fantastic flying machines powered buy an indeterminate power source. Last but not least, this world was also inhabited by witches who lived a much longer lifespan than normal humans.

The audiences’ guide into this fantastical world in “The Golden Compass” is Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards). Left to live and study at the world’s equivalent of our worlds Oxford university by her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), she grows up to be an inquisitive and headstrong young girl who unintentionally learned of more than she should know about the realities of the world that she lived it. The knowledge quickly became dangerous for her when she attracts the attention of the Magisterium, the organization who controlled everything in her world, who sent Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to take her away from her home to eliminate the threat she and her uncle represented on the Magisterium continued grip on power.

Before going with Mrs. Coulter, Lyra received the last alethiometer, the titular golden compass with the ability to discern the truth for any question asked. A parting gift from the masters who looked over her safety before, the golden compass quickly showed Lyra that things were not as it seemed with Mr. Coulter. When she discovered that her best friend, Roger (Ben Walker), has been abducted by Gobblers under the command of Mrs. Coulter, she escapes with her daemon Pan (Freddie Highmore) to rescue him. Along the way, she finds help in the form of the seafaring Gyptians, a witch called Serafina (Eva Green), an aeronaut called Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) and an armored polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). This collection of character accompanied Lyra as she traveled north towards the frigid polar icescape to find the location where the Globbers took the children and free them.

Looking at the pace of the film and reading that the screenwriter (and director - Chris Weitz) had to compress 430 pages into a screenplay to fit 114 minutes, I feel that he has done a fairly good job with it. With the exception of some scenes to show audience that Daniel Craig was actually in the movie and not just a name they tacked on the posters, considering the limited screen time he had in this installment, the movie wisely focused on Lyra’s journey. Help comes rather conveniently at each point of the journey but unlike the more successful LOTR adaptation, there seemed to be a lack of urgency and desperation on those points in her journey for the character to merit outside help. More than a few times while watching the movie, I felt that Lyra was just lucky to find help before she got into trouble instead of when she actually desperate to get that help.

“The Golden Compass” was also a beautifully rendered film with a lot of visual spectacles to feast on. From iconic images of airships, multiple daemons on screen at the same time as well as vast sceneries, it was clear the amount of work put in from the CGI department. Unfortunately, audiences were distracted with so much exposition delivered in the scenes to really enjoy them before the plot moves to the next point of the story. There was also a sense of detachment especially in the final climatic scene where the decision of using more wide angle in these scenes meant that the audiences could not feel like they were in the middle of the battle. With the audience not really feeling involved in the climatic battle, we were left with little to cheer about when the movie reach it’s feel good ending (which by the way I heard more bloody and darker than the ending in the movie).

The actors assembled for this movie were all of exceptional caliber in their own right but a decidedly lack of firm direction reduced their opportuinity to shine. Ian McKellen, signing up for another trilogy, was sufficiently regal sounding for Iorek and Sam Elliot was delightfully refreshing as a Southern gentleman aeronaut with a sassy hare daemon named Hester (Kathy Bates). Daniel Craig’s Lord Asriel hardly made a presence in the movie having only a few screens in the beginning and end of the movie. However the best mention for the film has to go to Dakota Blue Richards and Nicole Kidman. Richard’s portrayal of Lyra combined equal amounts of petulant child and wiser than her age qualities that was delightful to watch. She would surely worth looking forward to in future installments of the series to see how she develops. Kidman’s portray of the icy Mrs. Coulter was the highlight of the movie for me. A perfect study on how to portray inner fury simmering behind a smiling façade, Kidman’s first turn as a villain was both equally seductive and chilling.

“The Golden Compass” could have used the kind of magic touch that Peter Jackson had in the LOTR series. Grand in scale and scope, the movie seemed to be a bit lost in terms of focus and direction. It was as if the director himself was feeling detached from the movie that he wrote. It was still serviceable as an opening/origin movie to the trilogy but with the possibility that the next installment may not be made (remember Eragon?) , the movie left audiences frustrated with the amount of loose thread left behind after the credit rolled. That in itself is a pity in my opinion as the world that Lyra and her companions inhabit sounds more interesting to see more of rather than Narnia’s world for example. If this is to be the first and the last installment of the series to see screen, then hopefully at lease it would spur more audience to pick up the original books to read where Lyra’s adventures take her next.


fadz- said...

hey, aku suka gila kat narnia, afsal ramai tak suka narnia? narnia mengingatkan aku pada zaman fantasi kanak2 menyerupai filem wizard of oz... btw, suka rebiu golden compass kau, right to the spot!

Nickxandar said...

Fadz ...


Narnia was OK but bit too bland compared to LOTR. The Narnia universe pun a bit simplistic compared to LOTR and Gloden Compass.

Maybe the next one would be better? Kita tgk nanti bila dah keluar, jom!