One of Garrison Keillor’s stories drew large amounts of mail because it had no ending. He responded that many stories in his life have yet to end.
No ending is usually bad for a movie, and “The Golden Compass” (now playing) attempts to tell a story and provide no ending. It’s open-ended in the same way “The Lord of the Rings” was, but “Compass” isn’t as good as the trilogy from J.R.R. Tolkien.
“Compass” is based on the first novel in the controversial children’s fantasy trilogy by another Englishman, Philip Pullman. The movie situates us in a world parallel to Earth, where people don’t have souls, but representations of souls by animal-like daemons. A dualism is put in place between a mystic substance called Dust and the Magisterium, which is essentially a combination of the Gestapo and organized religion.
Central to the story is an orphan girl named Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon. Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) has an explorer uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who places Lyra within the ivy-walled halls of Jordan College.
The movie begins with Lord Asriel going off to the Arctic in search of Dust, while Lyra gets whisked away to the home of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and high society. After a short time, however, Lyra runs away ”but not before getting an Alethiometer, or Golden Compass. The Alethiometer has the power to tell whether someone is being truthful, and it can also answer questions about the past.
The Magisterium wants to control access to Alethiometers, for they seem to be powered by Dust. Lyra is to keep hers hidden away.
She sets off to the North, where the Magisterium is experimenting with children. Her journey has her meet up with: the Gyptians, a race of seafaring people; the Witches, who know where Lyra fits into the grand scheme of history; and Mr. Scoresby (Sam Elliot), a man who journeys on an airship. There is a race of armored bears, and one that contracts to guard Lyra, as well as a foreign-speaking race of men who are soldiers for the Magisterium. If it all sounds confusing, it is.
“The Golden Compass” has lots of characters, but the movie doesn’t flesh many of them out. At every turn, a new character or race of people emerges. These people join the story, but the movie provides no understanding of how they fit in the larger narrative. They just show up.
Much has been made over Pullman’s stance on religion, with many saying the movie holds seeds of Pullman’s atheism.
Having not read any of the books, I do not feel I can say that this movie is an indictment of anything. Are there disturbing elements to the story? Yes. Why does the Magisterium want to experiment on the children? Why did Pullman choose to call the ill-intentioned organized religion by the same name the Catholic Church uses to name its tradition of teaching authority? What is so wrong with Dust? These are questions I pondered in my viewing.
In the movie, the Magisterium is the authority that knows what is right for citizens. Being told what to do and following orders is the primary good of every citizen. Free expression of the will is wrong, while Lyra represents doing what one pleases. She makes it clear she does not like it when someone tells her what to do.
The movie presents not a religious group so much as a political group that wants to control everything. Some believe that is what the church writ large has done historically, thus making the film a criticism of sorts of the church.
To really answer what this story is saying about religion, one will have to read the books or wait for the next two movies (assuming they are green-lit after the disappointing opening for “Compass” this weekend). The present movie does nothing more than hint at what is to come, and that lack of direction affects both the issue of religion and the quality of this movie, which just isn’t very good.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence. Reviewer’s note: Not for younger children.
Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Chris Weitz (from the novel by Philip Pullman)
Cast: Marisa Coulter: Nicole Kidman; Lyra: Dakota Blue Richards; Lord Asriel: Daniel Craig; Lee Scoresby: Sam Elliot; Stelmaria: Kristin Scott Thomas; Serafina: Eva Green; First High Councilor: Christopher Lee; Farder Coram: Tom Courtenay; Magisterial Emissary: Derek Jacobi; Fra Pavel: Simon McBurney; With the voices of: Iorek Byrnison: Ian McKellen; Ragnar Sturlusson: Ian McShane; Pantalaimon: Freddie Highmore; Hester: Kathy Bates.