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Movie Review: The Golden Compass

By Matthew Huntley

January 7, 2007

Great, my compass looks like Chinese New Year.

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The Golden Compass was the first among Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, unread by me, but if the movie is any indication, the literature probably has great worth. Pullman has said his books don't promote any one thing, only inspire things like "...kindness, courage, curiosity, open-mindedness." It's easy to see why institutions like the Catholic League would protest its message since it uses God, or an Authority, as a manifestation against free will. Pullman has said he wrote his books at a time when he found no evidence of God. The movie is less talky than the literature, but as is, it doesn't talk specifically about religion, Christ or the Bible. If the studio had more guts, it would have spoken about these things more explicitly, but the movie wants to push the idea of banning restricted thought and making it uniform. That is a valuable agenda. It is perhaps more accurate to say the movie is against the negative ramifications of religion, namely mankind's interpretation of religious sources, and the idea that we should all accept and worship the same way just because we're told to, or else. Man should live freely, be educated and make his own decisions.




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Subtext aside, The Golden Compass works extremely well as a compelling action adventure. It has the usual ingredients of its type, including chase scenes, giant battle sequences, distant aerial shots, talking animals, witches, neat-looking inventions, cold locations. You get the idea. The highlight is a pumped up bear fight that pushed an envelope I wasn't expecting it to. Because its ideals plant it in a more subversive, serious context, all of these qualities come to matter as more than just things to look at and admire. They become central components to the story, which is intelligent and thoughtful because it's actually trying to say something and create discourse. When I watch a movie like this, I appreciate its message, but its message is not what makes it a good. A movie can have a horrible message and still be well-made. Fortunately, this movie has a good message and is also well-made, and I guess it better be since it has a reported $180 million production budget. But Weitz uses his resources wisely to envelop us in his world and making us care about the intellectual journeys of his characters. Kidman and Craig are fine as the adult leads, but the real star is Richards, who illuminates Lyra with conviction, energy and enthusiasm. Two more books were published after The Golden Compass - The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass -but New Line has not made any promises to make them. Given how enthralling "Compass" is as a movie, I can only hope it does well enough internationally to greenlight the other installments. Unlike "Potter" and "Narnia," which are good series that I can pretty much leave at any time, "Compass" is one I'm anxiously waiting to see continue. Let's hope it does.


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