All right, shoot me now.  I’m Christian, and I went to watch The Golden Compass.

Right, now that everyone who is going to strike me off their RSS reader in disgust has done so, and stomped off in disgust, we can get into the review.

First off, I haven’t read the book.  Oddly enough, this was one of those books that I’d been keeping an eye on, though, for quite a while.  Even before I knew about the controversy about these books in Christian circles, I’d been hearing about this trilogy over and over again as being one of the most well-written and memorable of books written for children. (Obviously, not quite as big as Harry Potter, but the reputation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was very strong)

Then I’d heard about the controversy about the books – and now the film itself has made the issue even more public.  So, anyway, while it’s the kind of thing you can keep from your kids when they’re young and impressionable, it’s not the type of thing that you can ignore as an adult, so I thought it was better to see the film and actually understand for myself what the fuss was about.

The story of the film, very briefly, revolves around a girl called Lyra. She lives in Brytain, which is essentially alternative form of our world.  (In fact, the film starts with a voice-over narration announcing that there are many worlds similar to ours, but different in other ways.)  The most noticeable difference is that people’s souls, rather than being inside them, walk alongside the person in an animal form (called, for some unknown reason, daemons).

Lyra’s uncle, Asriel, is sent by the scholars of an Oxford-University like college to make an expedition far up north to discover the secrets of “Dust”, a strange element that connects all the parallel worlds (including ours) to each other and has something to do with people.  This expedition attracts the attention of the Magisterium, a mighty organisation that rules the world, and makes up rules to help people know how to live.

Now, in the course of this film, the actual workings of “Dust” are not explained.  (That’s for the sequel, I guess.)  But you only need to be tipped off a little bit about Pullman’s agenda to realise that the Magisterium are a thinly-veiled caricature of the church (or at least the mighty conspiracy-weaving church that atheists worry about in their heads – I don’t think the Presbyterian Church of Australia is going to end up becoming a Magisterium-like organisation in any hurry). And, obviously, with all the mentions of “a battle over free will”, etc. and from things I’ve read elsewhere, we’re going to find out about a conspiracy by the church to make people believe in God so they will do what they want.

So, yes, all the stories you’ve heard about the atheistic message are true, however, because this film is only one of three, nothing is that explicitly spelled out yet.  There’s certainly been no mention of God yet.

However, I found that the main problem with this film, aside from the atheistic stuff, is that, to be honest, it’s all style and no substance.  I’ve never watched a Harry Potter film without having read the book, but I’ve heard many people who’ve only seen the movies comment that they can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

I have a feeling that the legion of Pullman fans would say the same about this book.  The script (written by the director, which is often a bad sign) sounds as if it’s pared down the book to its bare plot elements, and the dialogue and plot just move from scene to scene.  There’s no real room for character development or anything that makes us empathise with the characters.  Maybe Pullman’s book is actually this unengaging, but I find it hard to believe that it got a solid reputation if this movie is an accurate representation of the book.

So, all we’re left with is, in the end, scene after scene of eye candy.  And I will tell you, some of it is brilliant.  The visual imagery of everyone having their own daemon is stunning, with an animal matching each person’s temperament (watch out especially for Nicole Kidman’s vicious monkey).  Also quite beautiful is the sets such as the alternative London (which looks like the architecture of the Victorian era went mad and became the dominant style) and the kingdom of the polar bears (all of whom talk and fight).

However, that was about it.  So, in the end, I could probably only recommend this film to Christian parents who want to their older children about some of the concepts like atheism, is Christianity rational?, God vs science, etc. For parents with younger children who are too young to think through these things, I’d keep them away from it, because you don’t know where the thinking will lead.  For those of you who are older, you can make up your own mind whether you want to see it, but I don’t think you’ll find it a particularly engaging film.

2 1/2 out of 5.

Further Note:  While looking for an image for this post, I just found out from Wikipedia that apparently the director deliberately toned down the anti-Christian nature of the book for the film.  So there’s deliberately no reference to God or the church, etc.  So it seems that if you want your real dose of atheism and good storytelling, you have to look to the books.  The sequel films may be more brave, but they’re not even on the agenda to be made unless this one does well at the box office. We’ll see what happens.

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