The Golden Compass **1/2 (out of ****)

Director: Chris Weitz
Writer: Chris Weitz based on the novel by Phillip Pullman
Cast: Adam Godley, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott, Tom Courtenay
Rating: PG-13 (fantasy violence)
Release Date: 12/7/07

The Golden Compass is based on a book by the same title, first of a trilogy, written by Phillip Pullman. They were best sellers in Britain. However, there has been a significant amount of controversy surrounding both the books and the movie because Pullman is an atheist and brings this viewpoint to his children’s stories. Members of religious groups believe that this is an effort to undercut parental and church influences toward faith in God. The movie project has steered clear of the anti-religious tone of the book and focuses so exclusively on the fantasy story that if I hadn’t been aware of the controversy, I would have scarcely noticed any anti-religious elements.

The story of The Golden Compass takes place in one of many alternative universes. The universe in question has the notable characteristic that people have associated “daemons” which take the form of animals. Children’s daemons can change from one animal to another, seemingly indicating the mood of the child. Adults on the other hand, have fixed animal types. Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is an 11-year old orphan girl raised by scholars at Jordan College. She has been entrusted with last surviving alethiometer, i.e. golden compass. The alethiometer is a psionic device that a gifted person, such as Lyra, can use to determine truth.

It seems that Lyra’s world is governed by a sinister organization known as the Magisterium. The members of the aforementioned give an appearance that is somewhere between priests and members of Hitler’s Gestapo. Lyra, who is a very sassy tomboy type, is snooping around the campus one day. When faculty members are heard coming, she hides in an closet and notices that a representative of the Magisterium pours something into a bottle of wine. Her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is about to have a glass when Lrya bursts out of the closet knocking the glass from his hand. “It’s poisoned,” she declares.

We soon learn that the reason for the plot against Asriel. He has discovered as substance called “Dust” that enters their world in the Arctic regions. It seems that the Magisterium sees the Dust as a threat. In addition to eliminating all of thce aethiometers save for Lyra’s, the Magisterium really doesn’t want knowledge of the Dust to get out either. So while Asriel is off to the Arctic, Lyra is told to say where she is.

However, one of her friends disappears and it seems that the Magisterium is behind that as well. About this time Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) arrives at Jordan College to take Lyra underwing. As Lrya snoops around Mrs. Coulter’s house, she discovers the truth behind the disappearances and that children are being taken to the special facility in the Artic. So Lyra runs away from Mrs. Coulter, who she has learned is an agent of the Magisterium, and heads north in search of her friend.

The plot continues with gyptians, witches, aeronaughts, and armored bears. In many ways the world of The Golden Compass has the looks of both old and new. People travel in vehicles that look like horse-drawn carriages yet are propelled by mysterious glowing balls. Whatever one thinks of the philosophies embedded in the plot, one can’t deny this film a visual treat. It seems to me that this movie is a little interest for young children but is for fantasy oriented teens and adults. The same could be said for the “Rings” movies and to a lesser extent the “Potter” movies as well.

I have not had the time or occasion to read the books but it seems to me that underling philosophy is closer to Gnosticism than atheism. The power behind the Magisterium is called the Authority. That seems to have characteristics similar to the Demiurge of Gnosticism than to God the Father of Christian theology. If so that will be of little comfort to the religious critics.

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