Sunday, December 23, 2007

Golden Compass gets lost in cash


I really want to like Golden Compass. It is about a rebellious and courageous girl resisting an authoritarian and repressive regime. It has great CGI effects, including those spectacular polar bears. It has a Mark Twain character – the United States’ best known anti-imperialist, though this aspect of his career is mostly forgotten. And it features Nicole Kidman, of whom I am a big fan.
So, why do I dislike the film so much? Well, to start with there is something obscene about spending close on $200 million for a film in the first place. Not as obscene as spending $400+ billion on the military budget of the USA but it nonetheless speaks to the fact that Hollywood has its priorities ass backwards.
It is one more demonstration that the movie industry thinks that if it can throw a bucket of money large enough at a film then the audience will flock to the product. Sooner or later it is bound to blow up in their faces, if only because the potential audience isn’t big enough to cover the bill.
The hideously bad Beowulf is discovering the same thing and not even the almost exposed virtual nipples of Angelina Jolie can save that film.
What the filmmakers of Golden Compass – and Beowulf – failed to realize is that flash and pomp can only cover up so many story flaws. Eventually we are bound to notice that behind the swelling music and incredible visuals is an empty vessel.
The story of the film is potentially rich, and the book did well for a reason, I suspect. It is the story of a world in which a repressive regime, the Magisterium, wants to eliminate all critical thinking and opposition. To do this means nipping it in the bud while children are still young.
Strangely, the source of critical thought is somehow connected to space “dust”, which links together all the different, possible worlds in the many universes. This, I suppose, is meant to represent the different possibilities inherent in free will.
One manifestation of this dust, this free will, is in the souls of the people. In the world of The Golden Compass, unlike our own, people’s souls live outside of their body in the form of “demon” animals. And prior to adulthood, these demons are changeable and unfixed. But once they are adults, the space dust (free will) flows through their now fixed demons into the owners.
The Magisterium, with the usual obviously evil characters prone to the equivalent of mustache twirling and irrational violent outbursts, wants to eliminate free thought by separating children from their demons, sort of a demonectomy. They have set up a laboratory in the north pole where they perform experiments on kidnapped children, violently separating them from their demons.
Into this backdrop steps Lyra the orphaned niece of a controversial professor/explorer a la Indiana Jones, who is an expert in the cosmic dust. He sees the dust’s power to expose the lies of the government and set the people free. However, she discovers that the government wants to kill him. After warning him in time Lyra becomes entangled in a complicated plot driven, in part, by a desire to save her kidnapped friend from the laboratory and also by her desire to protect and help her uncle in his quest.
It this sounds like a mouthful of detail to try and cram into a 90 minute film, well you are right and the result is a massive amount of exposition by various characters to explain the world, the backstory, the plotline. For a film that spent so much on its production we spend a lot of time watching talking heads tell us the story.
This serious flaw is compounded by the fact that a key means of driving the story forward is the “golden compass” aka the “alethiometer”. This semi-mystical device, given to Lyra by the head of the university, is meant to tell those who know how to use it, the hidden truth.
Pretty much every key moment in the plot is resolved by Lyra falling into a sort of trance while staring at the golden compass, which then answers the problem or question at hand. It literally is the ghost in the machine – a force outside of the characters resolving the story on their behalf.
It is both sloppy and boring. After all, we’re there to see the story’s characters struggle using their own hard won skills and experience. If it’s done for them, well, what’s the point?
The filmmakers should have used some of the $180 million to pay for story editors.
I’m sure there are some who will agree that this is all true but be willing to excuse the film because, after all, “it is meant for children, isn’t it.”
But this is to disrespect children who, as the film itself explains, aren’t as silly as we might think. What’s more, we should be teaching our children using the best techniques of storytelling and technological flimflam doesn’t count.
If I may permit myself a final, more general comment, I’ve noticed in many of the politically inclined films of this year many of the same faults – a didactic tone, too much exposition, one dimensional characters, etc.
To be fair I think this is the result of a certain immaturity, a newness in attempting to tell socially engaged stories amongst a broader section of artists. They haven’t yet internalized politics in a way that it becomes organic to the story and not a club to beat the audience with. Redacted was an example of this. In spades.
This, I think, is a normal part of the politicization process. My only fear is that because film budgets are so high and Hollywood so terminally timid, that these failures of youth will be written off as failures of form. The political baby will be thrown out with the didactic bathwater.
I hope this isn’t the case. A bad Golden Compass, which valorizes both children and rebellion against unjust authority, is better than a (much) more entertaining Lord of The Rings, with its racist, War on Terror boosterism.
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