I took the trolley to Grossmont Centre last night, bought a Red Fire Bar, a copy of From Russia With Love (it was down to eight dollars), and saw The Golden Compass.
I liked The Golden Compass. I suppose it was inevitable I'd like it on at least one level because of its beautiful production design and its legion of talented actors (Ian McKellen, Sam Elliot, Derek Jacobi, Kristen Scott Thomas, Simon McBurney, Daniel Craig, Christopher Lee . . .). But I also appreciated how quiet it was for a modern fantasy epic. Director Chris Weitz reportedly lost a lot of confidence in himself while making the film, but it doesn't show in the movie's admirable preponderance of long, quiet scenes of dialogue. Perhaps Weitz's breakdown was due to a fear of being unable to deliver a constant adrenaline rush to New Line.
I will say Ian McKellen, as the armoured bear, was by far my favourite part of the film. The play of cgi with voice seamlessly makes a character, and Ian McKellen, like Alec Guiness, proves once again his ability to take great acting past merely having perceivable emotional motivations to an uncanny ability to find the right way to say everything. Though the bear was also part of one of the things I didn't like about the film--whenever someone points a gun at the bear, the someone might stand there threateningly and have every reason to fire, but won't. This becomes particularly odd in a battle sequence later in the film--I really wish the filmmakers could have contrived something for this, like making his armour generate a bullet-proof shield or something. Because I guarantee you all the tension was drained out of those scenes as everyone in the audience wondered, "Why aren't they shooting him?"
The movie could have used a lot more Christopher Lee, too. He and Derek Jacobi have little more than cameo appearances as high-ups in the movie's villainous Big Brother organisation, the Magesterium. Jacobi is sadly hampered by what must have been the same direction John Hurt received in the V for Vendetta movie, and comes off as no more than a two dimensional Snidely Whiplash. Lee, though, an old hand at this kind of role, takes on the station of his character and makes sinister without trying hardly at all, being therefore more effective. If a sequel gets made, I hope his role is greatly expanded.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert takes the opportunity to make another passive aggressive swipe at The Lord of the Rings, saying, "'The Golden Compass' is a darker, deeper fantasy epic than the 'Rings' trilogy, 'The Chronicles of Narnia' or the 'Potter' films."* I think, aside from the obvious fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic, Tolkien might have disliked The Golden Compass because he famously disliked allegory--it was his primary complaint in regards to the Narnia books. The Golden Compass isn't deeper than The Lord of the Rings, it's just more clearly allegorical. Where the ring could simultaneously be chemical addiction, nuclear weapons, or just the bad, compulsive darkness of the human heart, the dust versus the Magisterium in The Golden Compass is always going to be uncontrollable nature versus the Catholic Church's vain attempt to impose its will upon nature, even in a slightly watered down form. But not everyone can be J.R.R. Tolkien, and I think The Golden Compass does what it does pretty well. And after all, the fact that DNA has more control over life than the church is something a lot of people these days probably need to be reminded of.
Chirs Weitz says he was influenced by the Star Wars trilogy when making the film, and there's a moment of surprise parental revelation in the film where I could hear Darth Vader in my head saying, "Search your feelings, you know it to be true." ** It seems the prequel trilogy hasn't prevented Star Wars from becoming an essential part of the fabric of modern fantasy fiction.
*Ebert's positive reviews for The Lord of the Rings movies were always so grudging I have to wonder if he and Tolkien ran into each other at a bar one night, whereupon they got into a terrific, drunken argument and Tolkien told him he'd always be nobody compared to him. Or something like that.
**BEOWULF SPOILER; There was also a bit of Star Wars influence, apparently, on Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery when writing the Beowulf screenplay, which plays with the idea of estranged fathers and sons cutting off one anothers' arms. The interesting spin in Beowulf is that Beowulf cuts off his own arm to redeem his evil son, while Luke Skywalker cut off his father's hand in the process of redeeming him in Return of the Jedi.