The Golden Compass (Movie Review)

Golden Compass movieThere has been much controversy over the movie “The Golden Compass”, which comes from book written by Philip Pullman, which I had not read. There was even talks amongst Christians of boycotting the movie. Just do a search on FaceBook or MySpace and you will find several groups devoted to boycotting it. So I decided I wanted to go see what all the protesting was all about.

I should warn you that if you want to see the movies and have not read the books, that there are spoilers below.

I had heard that Pullman was a self-avowed atheist and that the series of books, of which “The Golden Compass” is the first, were basically his call for “killing God”. Which when you think about it, to kill God there has to have been a God in the first place and atheist don’t believe in God. But I digress….

The theater I saw the movie in was the first all digital theater in my area and this being my first time in it, I was immediately drawn into how visually stunning it was because the image was so precise. I thought that this would be a great asset to a film in the fantasy genre, so Pullman’s movie had an advantage at this point in my mind. And I was indeed correct, because it was really good and immediately drew you in.

It all started off telling the premise that there were many universes and how in each universe life was different for everyone. And in this universe that we were about to enter, everyone had their own personal daemon that walked around with them and represented their soul. There was also this alethiometer (golden compass) that would point to the truth, but only to the person who could read it and there was only one girl who could. The scene then cut to a girl name Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) and her friends playing together in a field.

But from there the story seemed to just kind of jump right into the middle of the action. I felt that there was no real opportunity to get to know the characters. They were introduced but it seemed that it was so quick and short that you felt that you didn’t know them enough to actually care what was about to happen with them. They never really even explained fully what the daemon was so you spent time half wondering exactly what these animals were that followed everyone around.

Because there was no emotional attachment to the characters you felt that you were just sitting there watching a movie that had some pretty cool special effects and computer generated images (CGI). Some of the deamons were really good CGI and some of them seemed like they threw them together at the last minute. The ice bears (polar bears) looked really cool and the hair on them in some of the close-ups was really well done. And Lyra’s daemon that would shift shapes, children’s daemons will change form until the child becomes an adult, looked really good as well even as it morphed into different shapes. But the monkey for Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) I thought looked really CG and not very real, in my opinion.

Coke Polar BearThe scenery was visually stunning and when they went up north to the Arctic the mountains and everything just took your breath away. There was even one scene where Lyra was riding one of the ice bears named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen) that was really cool. You could almost believe at times that Lyra was riding a real polar bear. Although at one time I leaned over to one my friends I went with and I asked where the coke bottle was. It wasn’t that the scene was cheesy or anything, just that it really reminded you of that.

There were only two scenes were I really felt emotionally drawn into and the first one was when the ice bear, Iorek Byrnison, fought the king of the ice bears, Ragnar Sturlusson. We had been previously told that Iorek had left his ice bear pack, because he was defeated in a one on one combat and lost, so he left in shame. Lyra learned this when she found him in a village where he was hired to fix things and paid in whiskey. You then later on learn that Iorek was supposed to be the rightful heir to the throne and that Ragnar was the one who defeated him and became king. However, Rangar also killed Iorek’s father by poisoning him. So you began to feel sorry for Iorek and felt this emotional attachment. Well, Lyra ends up arranging for there to be another combat between the two of them and in the end Iorek wins. And you felt yourself well up with excitement over this.

The other scene that I felt an emotional attachment to was in Bolvangar which is the place the Magisterium, who are the people that want to control everyone and a representation of the Church in Pullman’s mind, have taken the children they kidnapped. Their plan is to separate the children from their daemons, because the daemons are the things that cause the children be influenced by “dust”. Dust, though it is not really explained in the movies very well, is basically a representation of sin. In one of the scenes there we find the lead character, Lyra, who has gone there to rescue her friends is caught and they put her into the machine that will separate her from her daemon. You find yourself getting sad at the thought of this, because by this point you have seen her and her daemon together enough to sense the emotional attachment they have. But then Mrs. Coulter steps in an rescues her even though she is the person who has led the group kidnapping these children as well as doing this experiment on the children. We also learn that she is Lyra’s mom and that Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is her father, even though he was introduced to us as her uncle.

From a movie standpoint I do not think that this movie was that good and I would have to agree with most of the movie reviews that I read. And judging by the “crowd” at the theater I would have to say that people have gotten that message. There was only about 10-12 people in the theater for the show. So I doubt this will be getting any big box office numbers.

As a Christ-follower, I was not disturbed by the content of the film. But from what I understand the first book really does not delve that much into Pullman’s atheistic views. I would even say that you wouldn’t even guess that the author was an atheist. You would imagine that he is speaking out against oppressive governments or something like that, the Magisterium could easily be representative of that. So Pullman’s intentions are not even clear at this point.

But going into the movie knowing that in Pullman’s mind the Magisterium is really the Church, I would have to somewhat agree with some of his viewpoints in regard to how the church can be oppressive. It is in this knowledge that you really begin to see Pullman’s real motive and agenda. His fight and beef is clearly with the Church and the way that the Church treats people then it is with God. It is in the fact that Pullman believes that the Church has chosen to insulate people from being able to question and think for themselves that he finds fault. And in someways he is correct. Many people in the Church have come to the conclusion that we would be better of controlling people and teaching them how to think, rather then allow free thought or really even free will.

Let me explain why I think that. The first way that we see this is in how many Christians feel that when movies such as this one come out, that we should boycott them instead of allowing them to be shown. Honestly, what are we afraid of? Doesn’t the Bible say that, “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world”? What do we as Christ-followers have to be worried about?

I firmly believe in studying the Bible and that it is the main textbook for how we should live our lives, but I also believe that God has placed in the exact time, place and culture that we are born into and that we need to be students of the world around us. They always tell missionaries that when they go to another culture that they should learn the culture they are in so they can best reach the people there. But people in the Church here in America feel that they are exempt from that, we somehow feel that we need to hole ourselves up away from the world to make sure we stay as pure as possible. So we do our best to shelter our kids from the outside and not let them listen to certain kinds of music, read certain kinds of books, or watch certain kinds of movies & T.V. shows. Some even go so far as to shelter them from public schools, so they can’t be influenced by the world around us. If we are supposed to reach out to the world how can we do that from behind our walls? We need to be with the people just like Jesus was. He did not come and avoid the world, instead he spent time with the sinners getting to know them and He loved them. That is exactly what we as the Church are called to do.

Philip Pullman is pointing out to us that we are not and have not done that with this book he has written. But sadly far too many Christians won’t get that message, because they have chosen to stick their fingers in their ears and ignore him rather then trying to get to know him in hopes that they might be able to show him love.

I am a follower of Jesus, a husband to Kim, father to Hannah & Caleb, and the connections pastor at The River Church. The thoughts expressed here are my own and not The River Church's.

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