Saturday, January 05, 2008


Cast: Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, Sir Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Sam Elliot
Director: Chris Weitz
Runtime: 113 min.
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure

Studio executives ought to understand that the length of a film isn’t anyway proportional to the box office receipts, more so for a fantasy film. Because fantasy films depend greatly on smooth narration, and from that very narration we derive the adventure of the joyride. A quick glance at the top films at the box office must serve as a proof, I guess. The Golden Compass, based on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of those films that is begging its writers (Chris Weitz, About a Boy) to ease the foot on the gas, to enjoy its moments and not to just thunder its way past all the obligatory plot-markers to its designated time-limit, most probably set by those gentlemen down at Newline. It is superbly entertaining, and is bristling with energy almost all the time never for a moment rendering itself incomprehensible, but that alone will not give us the next great adventure film. There’s complex material in here, and judging from the title of the source, dark too. The film though doesn’t seem to care one wee bit, nor does it look like it understands all that it deals with, making it almost too literal in its approach. Moreover, a longer runtime gives us more of that alternate world to experience, and that gives us a sense of place. And once that is achieved, wherein we feel the world in our minds on our way back to home, we’ll know for sure we’ve the next, well I can’t hold it anymore, Lord of the Rings. I did try to avoid that name.
Take the concept of the Daemons, and the process of Intercision from the respective Daemons. The process is carried out by the Majisterium, wherein the respective Daemon is separated from the child, to weed out the concept of Dust completely from their psyches before their individual Daemons settle down. This is a very deep process, and a very painful one at that. I might have never read the books, but I can imagine. Someone who has read the title ought to do me a favor here; since I hear that the books are extremely popular much in the vein of names like Narnia and Harry Potter you need to tell me how does Mr. Pullman handle it when we come to know that little Billy’s Daemon has been separated from him. I hope it carries a lot more weight because a development as significant as that ought to be extremely traumatic.
Now, I’m sure some of you (those who haven’t yet watched the film) might be wondering what have I just spoken above, and what in God’s name – Daemons, Intercision, Majisterium and most importantly Dust – are. Well, I was trying to prove a point, and I hope I was successful at that. See, the film explains almost all its important concepts in the opening prelude in a rushed commentary by Eva Green, a la Lord of the Rings. That name, yet again, and I’m trying. So, we know what all of those mean by the time they make their practical usage felt in live situations. Let me take a minute here, and help you understand these names since the film gives it anyway in the first 10 odd minutes. There’re millions of parallel worlds being lived in millions of parallel earths. In some of them, the soul is inside the person while on others it is outside. The Golden Compass is set in a world that has it the latter way. The external souls always accompany the person in the form of an animal, any animal, and it is called, well, a daemon. The animal, rather the daemon and the person considered together form the complete being. A brave adventurous person might have a lion, a scheming manipulative kind might have a snake or a fox. Logically, if you wonder, the kids don’t have a set inner self, they’re easily influenced and hence, their daemons are constantly shifting their physical self. A kid’s rat can turn into a butterfly at the drop of another kid’s cat. The authoritative Majisterium, which seems more like the Soviet’s iron hand rules this world. Its authority derives its foundation from dogmatic rules, and that faces danger from a cosmic particle called Dust, which might settle down on the impressionable children before their daemons settled down and hence give rise to anti-dogma adults. I really hope you got the hang of it. Good lord I’m a bad storyteller, aren’t I. Anyways, my point was that if a film as this, lets the situation do the talking enabling us discover what the significance of the Daemon was or the Dust is, it could have been a significantly better story-telling exercise. There’s great gravity in unexplained concepts, and part of the great joy of fantasy-world tales is the unraveling of concepts.
The rest is what makes up for the norm in today’s adventure films – a kid, in this case an 11-year old girl Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) who finds herself in possession of an Alethiometer (Golden Compass) as she sets out to rescue the world accompanied by several characters played by several familiar faces and a CGI triumph polar bear Iorek Byrnison voiced by one of modern adventure cinema’s great inevitabilities, Sir Ian McKellen.
Any film that has Nicole Kidman in it is assured to be gorgeous to look at; that this film boasts of quite a lot of eye candy in terms of CGI to back her up is all the more satisfying. There’s a polar bear fighting sequence that is the best animal wrestling since the mighty Kong choke-slammed three dinosaurs. Not that this one here is remotely as spectacular, and how can it be. But there’s little competition out there, and this one is good. There’s a lot of white around, since the film spends the majority of its time in the North Pole. Add that too the giant beast and it is all worth the price of the admission ticket. There’re obligatory aerial tracking shots of scenery, obviously backed up by supposed-to-be rousing background score. I say supposed-to-be because the work by Alexandre Desplat feels uninspired and falls terribly flat. The handling of some of these sequences doesn’t help matters either; rather the rapid developments that take place, courtesy the super-fast narration, construct an air of inevitability. We know that the giant beast is going to help Lyra get to the destination, we know that the giant beast will come roaring to her rescue, we know Lyra’s uncle Sir Asriel is going to make it alive. It reminds me of that fantastic destruction of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, by Mark Twain in one of his essays, who rather amusingly pointed out that whenever it required a twig to be stepped on, the Cooper plot found a twig and stepped on it, irrespective of the odds. The events here do not develop; they merely follow their predestined course, some of them feeling nothing short of ridiculous.
Then there’s that other inevitability, the contrived dialogues. Why am I here? Dear, you’re here because you’re supposed to be the chosen kid and supposed to be sharing the maximum screen time. For heaven’s sake, please come up with new questions. The performances are top class, and when you have talent like Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in the same room it is bound to be. Nicole Kidman is divine, as usual, and this time around she’s divinely evil for she plays a manipulative person. The surprise element is young Dakota Richards who is a revelation. She isn’t, you know, saccharine and binary-expression wonders like those kids from The Chronicles of Narnia. I have no idea how the character is in the book but I’m pretty sure she has more than lived to the expectations, if indeed there were any. I might never understand the controversies though, which I believe are as uncalled for as those that accompanied The Da Vinci Code. In fact, more so here. This film doesn’t even seem to realize in its naivety and deep attention towards super-fast narration that such issues could be raised out of it. That it still did occur is rather sad.

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