GOLDEN COMPASS, THE – Blu-ray review

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Jason provide their reactions to the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Movie According to John:
New Line Cinema based their 2007 release “The Golden Compass” on the first book in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials,” published in 1995. From the outset, Pullman’s books met with immense popularity and immense controversy. Because the first movie version headed off in the same direction, I thought I’d start with a few preliminary observations.

To begin, critics of the books accused Pullman of promoting atheism, and many church groups, including the Catholic League, condemned the books and this first film version for a supposed antireligious bias. Having read the books some years ago and enjoyed them and now having seen the first of the movies several times and enjoyed it, I think it’s clear that Pullman does, indeed, call into question the role of organized religion in the world. However, his stories of multiple dimensions, angels, wars among other-dimensional beings, and even the presence of God would appear to belie the fact that it is promoting atheism. It seems to me that any criticism on Pullman’s part he directs not at the existence or nonexistence of God but at formal religion, which he sees as having become too powerful and too worldly since the beginnings of civilization. Yes, the Magisterium in his stories may be a thinly disguised symbol for the Catholic Church, but he uses the Magisterium as a symbol for the power and authority that many religions have exercised over the centuries to bind people to their own will.

As I see it, Pullman is promoting peace and love and brotherhood in his stories rather than what he views as some of the world’s religions promoting bigotry, hatred, and corruption. In this regard, he is taking a tack similar to that of C.S. Lewis some years before. I loved C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” books, with their pro-Christian stance, and I love equally Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” with their own strong set of morals. But parents who are worried about what Pullman’s books might do to children’s minds would do best to look to their own kids and let other parents take care of theirs. The last thing we need in the world is yet another attempt at censorship.

I recognize that books and movies can be powerful forces for good or evil in the world, but I also recognize that people have to be able to discern for themselves the differences between good and evil and that universal censorship is not an option for open-minded adults. Neither the book nor the movie version of “The Golden Compass” contains anything that would shake the foundations of one’s faith. If it does, I would question the solidity of that faith to begin with. In any event, the point would seem to be moot in the first movie installment since director Chris Weitz (“American Pie,” “About a Boy”), who adapted the screenplay from the book, removes practically any mention of God or religion from it.

Besides, “The Golden Compass” is basically a work of fantasy. It is fantasy in the best traditions of “The Lord of the Rings” or the aforementioned “Chronicles of Narnia.” Yet, it is possible that present-day science may even be stranger than fiction. Pullman’s books suggest that multiple dimensions exist within the same time and space and that under the right conditions it might be possible to move among them. Fantasy? Well, hang on. In the past thirty years or so, a majority of scientists have come to accept string theory as a so-called “Theory of Everything,” one that helps to explain how everything in the universe works. The idea of string theory is that infinitesimally small loops or tubes of vibrating energy make up all the matter of the universe, from atoms to galaxies, and that the frequency with which these “strings” vibrate determines their physical properties. The thing is, and I don’t even pretend to understand it, scientists also believe that in order for string theory to work, it must contain more than the four dimensions of space and time we now understand. In fact, string theory suggests there may be as many as eleven or more separate dimensions curled up within these strings. What those dimensions might contain is open to speculation. Moreover, I would also remind the reader that a majority of scientists in the last thirty years or so have also come to accept the idea that they can measure only about ten or fifteen percent of the universe–that there is over eighty-five percent that they cannot see or touch but know exists. They have come to call this unknown part of the cosmos “dark matter” and “dark energy.” Science in the latter part of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first has made yesterday’s science fiction and fantasy into something closer resembling intimations of truth.

Anyway, after that long-winded intro, let me comment briefly on the film version of “The Golden Compass” and then turn you over to Jason. Frankly, I was a little underwhelmed by it all. Given that I liked the books so much and that New Line Cinema, who had produced “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, had lavished a ton of money on the movie gave me every reason to hope for the best.

Maybe it was director Chris Weitz who wasn’t quite up to the job. The first book in the “Dark Materials” series is a lengthy affair, and Weitz’s cutting it down to a mere 113 minutes seems to have sucked some of the life out of it. Usually, I’m against unnecessarily long movies, but when necessity dictates it, length can be a filmmaker’s ally. Here, it’s more like the enemy. Extreme length in Peter Jackson’s “Rings” worked for him; extreme length in the same director’s “King Kong” worked against him. Now, in Weitz’s “Compass,” it is extreme brevity that works against him. There simply isn’t enough room for the script to open up the characters or the actions to any significant degree. Instead, it’s all about getting from one place to another, with minimal attention to characterizations and interpersonal relationships. For this reason alone, the movie diminishes some of the story’s warmth.

Fans of the novels will also probably object to the liberties the screenplay takes, leaving out details, rearranging major plot sequences, and ending the movie at a different point than the first book did. Nevertheless, my major objections are, as I said, the condensing of so much material into so little space, leaving out some of the heart. Weitz retains the story’s substance, true, but he decreases its spirit; and his rather pedestrian direction doesn’t help, either. (The pacing just doesn’t feel smooth or comfortable.) What’s more, I missed this epic movie having epic music. Composer Alexandre Desplat has given us some fine film scores recently–“Girl With a Pearl Earring,” “Casanova,” “Syriana,” “The Queen,” “The Painted Veil”–but this is not one of them. I expected thrilling, inspirational music swelling up in the background of some scenes and lightly tinting the drama of others. Instead, I don’t think I was mindful of the music until the very end of the movie when the lyrics of some insipid song floated over the closing credits. A more elevated musical score would have lifted my film rating a full notch.

All that said, “The Golden Compass” is not a bad movie, just a slightly disappointing one, and I still enjoyed much of it. This was despite the Wife-O-Meter’s disdain for the many changes she saw. “Why couldn’t they have just followed the book!” she exclaimed when it was over. Perhaps I sympathize more than she does with the problems inherent in adapting a popular book for the screen, so I didn’t mind the alterations she saw. I found myself caught up in the vision, the acting, the scenery, and the beguiling CGI special effects, which surely save it from mediocrity.

Thank Philip Pullman for creating such fanciful worlds. His setting for this first installment is another dimension from our own, a dimension in which humans have souls outside their bodies, souls that take the shape of various animal daemons, and it’s these daemons that the Magisterium, the all-mighty power and authority in this world, wants to control. As Pullman’s books go on, they deal increasingly with the subject of the Magisterium’s attempts to govern free will, although here in the first episode the story only touches upon it. Then, there are the Gobblers, who are kidnapping children, and the armored bears and the Gyptians and the witches and the mysterious substance called “Dust” and the Alethiometer, the Golden Compass itself, which reveals the truth about anything to the person who can read it.

Most important, this movie lives or dies on the strength of its main character, and fortunately young Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua is outstanding. She projects spunk, courage, affection, and resourcefulness in equal measure, and one comes away believing in her. Likewise effective is Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, the cold, calculating woman who befriends Lyra early on; Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, the bold adventurer and explorer of other worlds; Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, the great bear, whose appearance puts new life into the whole movie; and Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, the folksy American aerialist. Also of interest are Ben Walker as Roger, Lyra’s young friend; Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala, a beautiful and beneficent witch; and Freddie Highmore as the voice of Lyra’s daemon, Pan. And the movie gets further help from Kathy Bates, Ian McShane, Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay, Kristin Scott Thomas, and the merest glimpse of the master, Christopher Lee.

The film’s set designs and Oscar-winning visual effects are eye-catching, yet they never overpower the senses as they did in George Lucas’s most-recent “Star Wars” flicks. Lyra’s world has the simultaneous appearance of nineteenth-century England and some future-century England at the same time, a nifty trick. The computer-generated daemons and bears look convincingly real; and the integration of blue-screen material, location shooting, and live action seems fairly seamless.

Be aware, however, that “The Golden Compass” will leave you hanging. It is only the first of three parts. I mention this because at the motion-picture showing I attended, I heard several people in the audience mutter their discontent that it concluded so abruptly, without any formal resolution. Then I heard another fellow behind me yell down, “It’s a trilogy, lady!”

Let me close with a final observation. The first book of “His Dark Materials” is more or less a prologue to the phantasmagorical worlds Pullman imagines, so maybe it’s appropriate, after all, that it be compressed into a relatively brief and traditional fantasy adventure. It may even be appropriate that the movie only hints at the power of the Magisterium and the influence the Magisterium seeks to obtain over all the many dimensions of the universe. The next two episodes, “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass,” open up the story to far broader, more mystical, more spiritual, more metaphysical implications. We’ll have to wait and see what Weitz (or whoever adapts and directs the next parts) does with that. John’s film rating: 6/10.

The Movie According to Jason:
“The Golden Compass” is New Line Cinema’s bid to create a new fantasy trilogy based on a series of books, a la “The Lord of the Rings” or corporate sibling Warner Brothers’ “Harry Potter” franchise. While technically brilliant and a wonder to behold, the film version of the Philip Pullman novel is as cold emotionally as its snow-covered locations are environmentally.

A particle–known simply as dust–has the power to unite entire worlds and, indeed, the universe. When a young girl, Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), overhears talk about dust from inside a closet, her inquisitiveness is piqued. Lucky for her, an apparent benefactor in the form of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) wants Lyra to accompany her to the great North, the only known source of dust. But before they leave, she finds other children are turning up missing. In a bid to find out where they are, Lyra enlists a cadre of allies–Gyptians, an ice bear, and other rogues–to free her friends.

The titular “The Golden Compass” is a MacGuffin in this story, an object that has real no purpose other than to propel the events on screen. It doesn’t matter that the compass can answer any question posed to it by turning a set of its hands. Nor does it matter that the symbols on the compass could refer to any number of questions, let alone the specific one being asked of it.

In essence, what has been committed to film at an estimated cost of $180 million is the setup for further adventures. Much like “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Golden Compass” assembles the pieces, gives the audience a few action set pieces, but never commits to an emotional arc. The characters have their own introductory scenes, there are giant armies and computer-generated battles, ominous foreshadowing for the follow-up films, but nothing that brings the story to a close. And that’s the greatest curse of the film: It doesn’t amount to anything on its own. There is no sense of loss, no emotion similar to other successful fantasy epics. “Star Wars” kept Darth Vader alive to menace Luke Skywalker in potential sequels, yet the self-contained story was resolved. The main story about rescuing Princess Leia and destroying the Death Star was complete. Here, one main character (Coulter) is whisked away offscreen while another (Lord Asriel, portrayed by Daniel Craig) is left dangling in danger.

There’s a moment of supposed revelation at the end of the film, one that tries to rope in our emotions and create a bigger conflict than there already is. It’s a hopelessly manipulative ploy, one that doesn’t deserve to be there. A cynic would think there was an ulterior motive; but since the film is based on a novel, the script has to be cut some slack in this regard.

The rest of the film? Decent enough escapist fare, which doesn’t justify the bile lobbed at it by certain religious groups. The complaint, as I understand it, is the story teaches children to rebel against authority, to question the world around them, and to fight a group called “Gobblers” (or Gobs for short). Really, the accusations against “The Golden Compass” are pathetic, much like the controversy over “Harry Potter” introducing children to witchcraft. Sometimes, a movie is just a movie.

Enough cannot be said about the special effects in “The Golden Compass.” As with all its cinematic siblings, computers created this world in a way unheard of even ten years ago. It’s a rich and detailed world combining the best elements of Middle Earth, Coruscant (from the “Star Wars” saga), and Victorian England. With blimps running on some unknown power source and carriages on the street without the aid of horses or fossil fuels, everything we’re exposed to on screen has been painstakingly designed and rendered. From the exquisite vehicles and technology to the snow-covered finale, there’s nary a hair out of place. While the ice bears don’t look entirely real–there is still a disconnect between reality and what a computer can create–they are the only “average” aspect of the visuals.

“The Golden Compass” is merely a prologue to the series proper. Some conspiracy with a government that’s afraid its citizens will begin to think for themselves is the general outline for the rest of the plot; it’s rather by the numbers and obvious, asking the audience to project our own feelings onto the common people when, in reality, the script doesn’t take us there.

“The Golden Compass” never imparts the sense of epic storytelling it needs to for us to care or come back for further adventures. The story itself is content to meander along and end on a cliffhanger, hoping the big names (Kidman, Craig, Eva Green, Ian McShane, Ian McKellan, Sam Elliott, Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas, Kathy Bates) and the special effects will bring us back.

“The Golden Compass” is an oddly cold, emotionless film. Even when the ice bear Iroek is tied up in the final battle, seemingly at the end of his journey, we’re struck with the feeling of “who cares” as opposed to real dread. Remember how we all felt when Obi-Wan Kenobi and Gandalf were fighting for life? That’s how we should have felt here. But we don’t. The film is too busy introducing characters, wowing the audience with special effects, and setting up its own universe. It should have concerned itself more with emotion and better storytelling. This film, on its own, is disappointing but not a “bad” film. Jason’s film rating: 5/10.

The Blu-ray picture quality is of a kind that will please and delight most viewers and undoubtedly annoy others. The image is bright, ultraclean, somewhat glossy, slightly flat, and often soft. Now, here’s the thing: The moviemakers shot “The Golden Compass” in large part with conventional film cameras and in part with digital cameras. I am only guessing here, but they may have decided they wanted the look of the two filming techniques to match as closely as possible, so they faced having either to add a small degree of grain to the digital footage or to filter some of the grain from the conventional footage. If they chose the latter route, it would explain why the image appears so polished and clear and why it doesn’t always look as realistically detailed as it should. Again, it’s only a guess, but that was my feeling when I first watched the film in a theater, too.

As I say, the 2.35:1, VC-1 video transfer seems a tad bland, glassy, and overly smooth for a high-definition release, even though it looks pretty much as I remember it from the movie house. Still, the colors are natural enough, and many of the special CGI effects are gorgeous. Darker scenes can be a trifle murky, it’s true, but most of the film is bright enough. Additionally, there are no halos, artifacts, or evidences of noise that I noticed, so for the most part we get a solid video treatment.

New Line’s audio engineers present the sound in 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, which acquits itself nicely. The music blossoms pleasantly in the surrounds, the midrange is well focused, and the soundtrack capably distributes all sorts of noises among and between the main speakers, front and rear. The sounds aboard the Gyptians’ old ship are especially impressive, and during the battle scenes we find a strong dynamic thrust and a fairly deep bass.

Disc one of this two-disc BD set contains the feature film, with two main bonus items: a regular audio commentary with director Chris Weitz and a “visually enhanced commentary.” The “enhanced” version puts little picture inserts into the proceedings, picture-in-picture, to spice up presentation and provide more visual information about the filmmaking. Things on disc one conclude with twenty scene selections (but no chapter insert), English as the only spoken language, Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired

Disc two contains the bulk of the extras, divided into two main sections. A succession of documentaries makes up the first section. These start with “The Novel: Author Philip Pullman and the Consequences of Curiosity,” nineteen minutes with the writer and other filmmakers. Next is “The Adaptation of Writer-Director Chris Weitz,” sixteen minutes on the getting the script right, followed by “Finding Lyra Belacqua: Introducing Dakota Blue Richards,” fifteen minutes on the casting of the young star. On a trivia note, there is no listing of Ms. Richards among the cast on the back of the disc case. A curious omission, given that she’s the star. After that is “Daemons,” twenty minutes; “The Alethiometer,” fifteen minutes; “Production Design,” twenty-six minutes and my favorite part of the proceedings; “Costumes,” eleven minutes; “Oxford: Lyra’s Jordan,” seven minutes; “Armoured Bears,” seventeen minutes; “Music,” twelve minutes with composer Alexandre Desplat; “The Launch: Releasing the Film,” eight minutes; a poster gallery; and two theatrical trailers and a teaser trailer. Moreover, many of these documentaries also come with galleries of still pictures.

Following the documentaries are several picture galleries from the aforementioned bonus materials that the user can view as slide shows or as stills by clicking on thumbnail pictures individually. The galleries include segments on the “Alethiometer,” “Amoured Bears,” “Costumes,” “Daemons,” “Production Design,” and “Posters.”

The extras wrap up with a beautifully illustrated and embossed slipcover, plus a disc-case insert of collectable memorabilia, including a detailed replica of the alethiometer itself for only $145. That thing looks pretty tempting, if for me cost prohibitive.

Parting Thoughts:
I dunno. I suppose if I hadn’t liked Philip Pullman’s books so much, I probably would have liked this movie version of “The Golden Compass” more than I did. It’s still a fascinating film and attractive to look at, but it doesn’t quite open up the characters or events as well as I had hoped, content instead merely to move the plot along in short order. Well, let’s trust that the final two installments in the series restore some of the books’ magic. In the meantime, there is still much to enjoy in “The Golden Compass,” not the least being its wonderful images and sound.