A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 369 – The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass – March 4th, 2011

It has been a couple of years since I read the book that this movie is based on and I entertained some thoughts of re-reading it before we put this in for the project. The thing is, I’ve got a lot of books on my to-read list. It’s part of my job. And they just keep coming. Re-reading something is a luxury and this book is a dense one so I never really got around to it. Still, I remember it fairly well. I certainly remember it well enough to watch this movie and feel a definite sense that something is amiss.

I feel bad about saying that, because there’s a lot of care and effort that went into this movie. It’s not a shoddily done film and there are bits that were done quite well. But it’s lacking something and it throws everything in the movie off. I think the trouble is that the book is a fairly intricate work, with a lot of threads of plot woven together and the reveals are done bit by bit, so you learn everything along with Lyra. And the movie can’t do that. It doesn’t have the time or the medium, so it has to simplify. Unfortunately it seems to have tried to simplify while also keeping all of the major plot points. That’s a problem.

The world the movie is set in is an incredibly detailed universe that’s an alternate reality to our own. And that’s set out at the beginning. That’s part of the whole plot. Some of the characters know that it’s just one of many alternate universes in existence. It’s a sort of steampunky neo-Victorian vibe and also has some magical stuff. Such as huge talking polar bears, and witches (who are never really explained but who play a key role in the final battle, but I’ll get to that). Also, and this is key, every person has an external representation of their soul. They’re called daemons and they take animal forms. Children’s daemons change shape, but they settle on one permanent form as a child grows up and their personality becomes more set. Daemons talk to their people and stay with them at all times. It’s taboo to handle another person’s daemon with bare hands and hurting someone’s daemon hurts the person too. This is all very important and it’s one of the things the movie does well. There’s some exposition, but there’s a lot more showing than telling and a lot of nice details with daemons all over the place in various forms. The only quibble I have, really is that once or twice the daemons are very obviously CGI in moments that don’t require it. Like a couple of guards with mastiffs that just stand there. Really? You couldn’t find a couple of dogs to stand there? I guess.

So we’ve got the daemons, and they’re important, but then we’ve got the dust, which is sort of like the physical representation of sin as it’s described to Lyra. But that only comes in later on and is rather clumsily handled up until then. And it’s important! Because it’s the motivation for several key plotlines! And then there’s the gobblers, who are kidnapping kids, but they don’t get a whole lot of time or explanation beyond the most cursory of lines. There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north, but we only know that because the characters all but flat out state “There are strange and mysterious things going on in the north!” Lyra’s guardian, Lord Asriel, shows up at Jordan College in Oxford, where Lyra lives, and he’s an explorer who does mysterious things. In the north. Then he takes off again after some strange and mysterious conversations. Lyra meets the strange and mysterious Mrs. Coulter, who takes her away from Jordan College with the temptation of a trip to the north. It feels like everything that happens in Oxford is all just set up to push Lyra to the north with tons of quick explanations and even quicker character development.

The thing is, once we’re in the north we get bogged down with the bears and what feels like a whole lot of empty space. I know things happened, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how it all went together to get from one point to the next. Time passed, people were introduced and then set aside, one of the witches showed up and then we didn’t really find out anything about her or what makes her important. And then? Bears. Lots of stuff with the bears. The bears fight and growl and oh it’s all very impressive, but in the larger scheme of things in this movie? It’s just plain not important. It’s not like the entire bear army shows up to help Lyra in the end. Just Iorek, whom she already knew.

Once we know what’s actually going on in the north – Mrs. Coulter and her cronies have some scheme to separate children from their daemons – there’s a big battle and well. That’s it. And I know damn well that the book went into more detail here. Leaving aside that it ends in a weird spot that isn’t where the book ends, it just feels like so much of what’s important to the book is glossed over in the movie. Oh, the separation plot point is horrifyingly done and I was genuinely uncomfortable watching it, but the purpose behind it? The grander scheme of things? It’s just not there. Same with the witches. Same with the bears. Same with everything. Because it’s all tossed in there and it’s all given a tiny bit of time. But at the expense of everything else. Everything takes away from everything. The book is a dense brick-like tome and the movie doesn’t even run two hours. So while I enjoyed a lot of the performances, and the cast is full of recognizable names, and the costumes and set dressing and cinematography and visual worldbuilding were lovely, and the daemons were well handled, the movie just doesn’t work for me. Sad, but there it is. I truly wish it had been otherwise.

March 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Golden Compass

March 4, 2011

The Golden Compass

Back when I first watched this movie I remember being disappointed and underwhelmed. At the time I had just finished reading the book this movie was based on and it saddened me that the movie seemed to so badly miss the point of the book. I’d like to cheat a little tonight and insert my original review from my LJ here as part of my review:

Just got done watching the movie version of The Golden Compass. Overall a fairly flat movie I felt. The moviemakers had to cram a LOT of info into a medium not best suited to it, so all the mystery and discovery of the book has been replaced by a voice-over and massive amounts of exposition dialog in the first third of the movie. So, for example, instead of Lyra figuring out over the course of her adventures what the Dust is and how it fits into the framework of her world she’s conveniently told about it right at the start of the film. I was impressed with the job they did layering in the most difficult concept from the book – the notion of daemons which are peoples’ souls in exterior form. Sure it was mentioned in the opening monologue, but they also managed to make it work visually, constantly reminding the viewer that every person in the world has a familiar animal with them at all times. My biggest complaint would be the action sequences. It felt as if the director saw the action bits as something that interfered with the plot: something best dispensed with as quickly as possible so as to get back to the storytelling. None of them take the time to get the viewer involved in any way – there is no ebb or flow to them, and they stagger ploddingly through some CGI before thankfully ending. (In particular the battle between the bears – which is fantastically rendered in the book and is sweeping, epic and full of dramatic tension – was dreadful. I don’t blame the teams of artists that created it – it was beautifully rendered – but the awful pacing and directing. Ugh.)

So yeah, those were my biggest complaints… until the closing credits started. I blame Peter Jackson and Fran Boyle for the atrocious song at the end. They did it – with pretty good success – at the ends of the LOTR movies, and now New Line is trying to rip them off. Crappily. Really, really crappily. ‘Let a seven-year-old write a poetic ode to Lyra and put it to lilting repetitive music.’ seems to have been the direction the producers gave. I’ve heard it and now I can’t un-hear it.

Of course the REAL biggest problem with the movie as an adaptation of the book is that it lacks the strength of its convictions. The book is an extremely dark story that ends with a brutal and gut wrenching twist. The movie tries to end on a high note by ending right before the climax of the book. As a result the movie is considerably weaker.

It puzzles me, actually, that anybody chose to attempt to adapt this property for the big screen in the first place. The books are bleak, dark, and upsetting. The heroes do not always win and indeed the heroes are not even always the heroes. What did the producers think they were going to do with the sequel? I mean clearly they intended to make one. This movie ends with a rousing speech by Lyra about how she and her allies are going to make everything right and somewhat of a deliberate cliffhanger. There’s no way that anybody could watch this film, even without having read the book, and feel that anything is concluded. There are entire skeins of loose plot threads. So were they intending to start the second movie with betrayal and tragedy? I suppose it would have set the tone for the movie, but it would have been unwatchable.

There are some things that this movie does well, however. The world in the books is a richly imagined and detailed one, and the movie does a great job of capturing some of that vision. The production design, costumes, and special effects are top notch. The casting is, in some cases, inspired. I particularly love Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, the areonaut. I always love Sam’s drawl and his grin, and in this case he fit my imagined vision of the character perfectly.

I’m just so frustrated by this movie! It shows such promise, and it has such high production values, but it’s so ham-fisted in its adaptation. There are clear hints of plot threads from the book which don’t play out in the movie. Like when Mrs. Coulter reacts so slowly when her daemon has his paw shut in the window. A keen-eyed viewer might suss out one of the big reveals in the book there, but because that reveal isn’t explicitly stated in the movie it ends up looking like strange editing with the monkey being hurt and then her flinching in pain a couple beats later. I end up wondering how much of what’s wrong with the movie is director Chris Weitz’s fault and how much is the mucking about that New Line did after he had submitted his final cut. It has been hinted that what was eventually released did not match his vision of the film, and I’d be curious to see how Chris’ version worked.

I have to assume now, four years after the first movie came out, that the other His Dark Materials books will not be making it to film. So this one movie is all that we’re going to get of Lyra’s adventures between the worlds. I’m simultaneously disappointed and relieved. At least I’ll never have to listen to that awful closing credits song again.

March 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment