The Golden Compass
Whoot, there it is
Not good. And meaning no disparagement to the friend I went with, because I’m glad I saw it. They say a bad movie teaches you as much as a good one. Well, a movie that has everything working for it but the story beats both hands-down.
This might be a good time to explain what makes a movie “good” for me. My tastes are not terribly sophisticated, and I have much to learn in terms of studying filmmaking as an art, or even as just a medium of communication. But I don’t know if study will ever change the fact that, for me, a “good” movie is one that runs my show emotionally.
The whole third act, people
This is why Little Miss Sunshine, with its quirks and implausiblities, rocks my socks. As did Return of the King, Castaway, and Enchanted, despite my deep reservations about this last. I will always praise Grindhouse with high praise because Planet Terror made me care about the characters while pretending it didn’t care if I did, and Death Proof had me screaming at the screen.
This is also why some movies in the critical canon don’t do much for me. Silence. Contempt. Film noir. Most Hitchcock, except maybe Dial M for Murder, because if you can’t get worked up about Grace Kelly you can’t get worked up.
I can admire a great movie that is sophisticated *and* moving, like Schindler’s List and the three-day depression it engendered, and (sublime to the ridiculous here, but bear with me) The Sixth Sense, which left me breathless and utterly bewildered that it was still summer outside the theater.
Still, there are some movies that rate well because they are, how do you say, *transporting*. How can I explain my affinity for the catharsis-forbidding The Last Unicorn, or the arbitrary dolly-opera of The Nightmare Before Christmas — that for some reason I still prefer over the good and moving Corpse Bride? I dunno. Got nothin’. But the movies in this category are fantastical and breakneck-paced, with well-differentiated characters and a story that spools from their choices, however vague their motivations.
Dark Crystal is in this category, heaven help me, and Shaun of the Dead. The point of this is that The Golden Compass had the hope of being moving, as well as the opportunity to be transporting, and yet accomplished neither.
Why not? Great cast, gorgeous art direction, wicked costumes and, saying this as one who despises digital characters, good digital characters. The outline is rousing enough — in a parallel universe,
Hell, even the characters are pretty good. Lyra is plucky, tempting fate and showing outrage when called a “lady.” Mrs. Coulter’s fire and ice persuasion techniques are vicious and delicious.
I had to fake-hug a primate in “Eyes Wide Shut,” too. Owowowo!
- Story. Events are set in motion by circumstance and exposition, not characters making choices. Once Lyra arrives in the North, the movie becomes a high-tone role-playing game, with problem, quest, solution, problem, quest, solution with no insight into the characters or relationship to what had gone before. Sam Elliott I half-expected Lyra to join a guild and +5 Agility.
- Pacing. Events proceed at the same pace, so everything is given equal weight. It’s not clear what’s important, much less how we’re supposed to feel about it. Lyra finds her (preternaturally beautiful) friend shattered and maimed, brings him home to his mom, wide shot of reunion, reaction shot of Lyra, and that’s it. That’s it? The ride across the ice to *go get* him was treated with more importance — tracking shot, slow motion, soaring music. And it was totally awesome, don’t get me wrong. But the ride *to* the kid is more important than the kid himself? Doesn’t his mom have something to say? Is Lyra maybe wracked with guilt for arriving too late, or horror at the realization that this is the fate that awaits the kidnapped? Couldn’t say.
But the polar-bear-riding was way sweet.
- Constant exposition. I believe this movie could have been A++ with different editing and about a third of the dialogue cut out. It’s like Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – EVERYTHING has to be said aloud. (“Your phoenix blinded my basilisk, but I’ll still get you!”) EVERYTHING is handled in dialogue. The tenth time someone does something, and then announces it, you have to wonder about the ego situation.
I hope we don’t get attacked by northern raiders OH MAN THERE THEY ARE WHAT ARE THE ODDS!
The scene in which Lyra convinces the Ice Bear King to fight Iorek could have been GREAT — we know he wants a daemon, and look at him fondle his doll, eww, that’s creepy. But Lyra explains everything aloud to her daemon (is the Ice Bear King hard of hearing? He stares at her throughout her chat.) All that is necessary here is “Pan, I want you to hide.” And her expository challenge to the Ice Bear King takes WAY too long. Imagine this version, peppered with uncomfortable silences, and the ensuing battle has much more menace:
Ice Bear King – “Who are you?”
Lyra – “I’m Lyra. Sent by Iorek.”
Ice Bear King – “Iorek?”
Lyra – “I’m his daemon.”
Ice Bear King – “(Oh hells no)”
Lyra – “But I would rather be yours, great king. Challenge and defeat him, and it will be so.”
Ice Bear King – “Daemon? No ways. Prove it.”
Lyra – “Ask me something I could not know.”
Ice Bear King – “(Asks something she *couldn’t* know, as opposed to the question he does ask, which Iorek’s daemon would DEFINITELY know!)”
Lyra – “(Consults compass). Yes, it’s yours.”
Ice Bear King – “(ROARS INSANELY!)”
In the movie, this episode takes about four minutes. ALL episodes take about four minutes. Meet Sam Elliott? Four minutes. Meet Iorek? Four minutes. Get Iorek’s armor? Four minutes. Random expository interstitial between church elders that never get close to the narrative? Four minutes. Ice bridge that eventually collapses? Four absolutely peril-free minutes. Which brings me to…
- No suspense. A good question is, how do you imbue a story with suspense when you *know* the good guys are going to win? You *know* Lyra isn’t going to fall into the ice chasm and die — why would it ever be suspenseful?
The same way you can believe ANYTHING a movie tries to sell you — that gorgeous, healthy Julia Roberts is a street-walker, that Steve Buscemi is broke, that Michael Clarke Duncan is simple-minded — by having the characters behave in relatable ways, which forces you to relate to their plight.
Naw, let’s just talk about it some more
If, confronted by the ice bridge, Lyra had done something most people could see themselves doing, the troubling facts of the situation would make the audience squirm. If Lyra gets down to slide across the bridge on her belly, you see how treacherous it is. If the skin of her arm sticks to its surface, and she has to pull it off, grimacing and leaving a pink welt, then you see how cold it is. If a piece of ice tumbles into the chasm, and Lyra holds still, listening for the sound of it hitting the bottom, and it’s a lo-o-o-ong delay as we hold close on her face, it’s a bit cliche but still makes the point.
If Iorek stands by, helpless and silent, instead of barking instructions, it only enhances the effect.
I’m just sayin’.
Now the smaller stuff:
- Iorek the Ice Bear is “Iorek Byrnison.” Serafina is “Serafina Pekkala.” Always! Sam Elliott gets to be “Scoresby” — so it’s not a legal thing. The full name business gets to be very silly, and I know because I use full names for silly effect alla time, even when the joke is hella old. Plus — why does an Ice Bear need a last name when there are, like, twenty of them?
- Speaking of, in the last battle (which I daresay actually takes a little longer than four minutes; new Ice Bear King Iorek shows up to fight… but doesn’t bring any other bears? Dude — I know you are new to this king thing, but CATCH UP.
- Sam Elliott is hot but he doesn’t do much. Possibly he didn’t need to be in this movie. No offense.
Sorry I couldn’t find a still of the “Mustache Rides” shirt
Same goes for Eva Green. The witch stuff just didn’t pay off enough to justify the time spent on it. Although she was righteous awesome.
- All the cutting away to churchy people talking — not ONE of these scenes was needed. They discussed only things we already knew or didn’t need to know. They reminded me of the Star Wars prequels — good actors in gorgeous costumes and gorgeous rooms, lit gorgeously, talking with dead seriousness about things that don’t matter. Alas.
- I don’t know if this is a small thing, but there are ABSOLUTELY NO people of color until the northern mercenaries show up, being all Asiany and speaking Asianese. OK, there are like two “Gyptians” who are people of color (oh my God irony) but they don’t get to talk. And later about half the rescued kids aren’t white, but, again, they don’t get to talk. No talking, any of you, unless it’s foreign and menacing! I mean, GEESH.