My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


A Critique: The Golden Compass and Atheism 

I took the oldest to see The Golden Compass on Friday with a large group of students from school. I figured better to go see it with her where I can help the discussion along later than to have her "creating" it for herself with her friends. I also think its useful, as Christians, not to be afraid of this sort of thing, and to not show our children that we're afraid of them. Besides, with it only pulling in a paltry $48 million over its first three weeks, domestically, and about $140 million worldwide (it cost $180 million to make), I thought it unlikely that my $14 would be the deciding factor whether the studio would want to make the second and third books into movies, also.

Generally, when I watch a movie, its on about three levels--the entertainment value, the craft, and then the message. All three need to be solid for me to really enjoy a movie--I can miss one and still be entertained, but generally that's how it goes for me. And that's how I'll be critiqueing The Golden Compass, followed by some thoughts on what the author was trying to accomplish with this effort.

First of all, I did NOT enjoy this movie. On a purely entertainment level, this film never got me going. The first scene is of a bunch of kids playing--though it wasn't clear at first that they were just playing. And, even at that, the playing is lifeless and depressing. The children are all pretty unpleasant and snotty to each other, and they seem disconnected from anything or anyone that would give their lives purpose. And it only gets worse once the adults enter the picture. Generally speaking, I find it a little bit charming when a child shows a bit of "pluck" in a movie, or shows that they're more clued in than the average child or than the adults think they should be--but in the case of our young heroine, Lyra, it's just a bit obnoxious. Which leaves us with a main character that deserves a "time-out", an antagonist (Nicole Kidman) who manages to at once be the only character on screen with good lighting AND be the only one not worth looking at, and an interesting protagonist (Daniel Craig) who disappears from the movie after the first fifteen minutes and is only brought back in a hasty "wrap-up" at the end of the movie. Honestly, I found myself drifting at some points during the movie, in much the same way I do on the couch during "movie night."

On the craft of the movie, I also found it very disappointing. For this budget, there had better have been somebody with editorial control who would notice things like . . . oh, I don't know, that the music (which is not bad) gets very redundant when every travel scene (of which there are many) has the same snippet of score in the background. I was, at one point, able to hum along with a score which I never heard before--that's not a good sign. Then there's the elements of this movie that are clearly derivative or direct rip-offs from other fantasy adventure movies. When Mrs. Coulter (Kidman) leads our herione to the news that she is her [gasp] mother, I was actually doing the Darth Vader-breathing thing in the theater. For the record, nobody sitting near me was amused. Then there's the scene with Lyra riding the giant polar bear across the frozen tundra, that was so much like the climactic scene in Narnia that it was more than a little strange. And the movie even opened with a lengthy exposition read by a woman in a somewhat breathy voice, a la The Fellowship of the Rings. The story-telling was choppy and uneven, and the character development which would have let us care about some of these characters never happened. The beauty of The Fellowship was that Peter Jackson took enough time filling in the gaps of the story so that we understood the relationships between characters and we cared about them--The Golden Compass never reached that level.

On the plus side, I think that all of these elements conspire to hide the message of the movie from children. They may have been entertained, but the story was so bad that any message was hidden from view, like a painting of something really ugly hidden under a layer of dirt and muck. But what is that message? Well, its sort of a Da Vinci Code for kids, except the message isn't the church hiding the truth, its that the church "controls thought." It starts by explaining that the "Magisterium" controls the news and hides the existence of "dust" and enforces . . . never mind--I never quite figured out what "dust" was supposed to be. The point is that there are not very many people left in the world who know that the Priesthood of the Catholic Church refers to itself as the Magisterium, so the belief of the writer, which doesn't make it through to the audience, is the standard old line that the church (and the whold body of believers, by extension) controls thought and are not interested in the truth. Each character moves through the movie with their "daemon" (pronounced "DEE-mun," as in demon), an animal who we are told is the soul of the characters. The characters interact with their demons, and, it appears, are their best friends. In the case of the children, the daemons can change shape--we're told this changing continues until the child matures. The children feel what the daemons feel--which gives us a charming scene early in the movie in which Mrs Coulter threatens Lyra by strangling her daemon, which also causes Lyra breathing troubles (a little child abuse for your amusement, anyone?)--and when a daemon dies, the person is left lost and damaged (the one character who this happened to died after being afflicted thus with "indecision"--ooooohh!). On the other hand, when a person dies, their daemon immediately explodes into dust, and is no more--the message there is too obvious to miss. And, in the end, what I suppose the point of the whole adventure is is that Mrs. Coulter, along with the Magisterium, is trying to invent a way to separate children from their daemons--free of the soul, the children would be more easily controlled. And so Lyra is trying to prevent that from happening, while helping her uncle (Craig) expose the "truth" about dust.

In the end, what SEEMS to be important is that children become free of the "authority" of the Magisterium, so that they can do whatever they want to. It is, in the end analysis, a vision of anarchy and chaos, matched in darkness only by the perpetual darkness of the cinematography.

Which, in the end analysis, is the point and the goal of atheism. If athiests truly did not believe, they would not go to the lengths they go to to keep the rest of us from celebrating our Faith. If there really were no God, why does He have to be destroyed in book three of The Golden Compass; if there really were no God, why must He be removed from our public places via litigation; if there really were no God, why does the state (in the case of the Soviet Union and others) need to replace Him?

And that, I believe, is the crux of the matter: God must be "destroyed" so that the state can be the only authority in our lives--THAT IS THE POINT OF ATHIESM, or perhaps, that for the state to have proper control over our lives, God must be destroyed! The chaos and anarchy is merely a step in the process--people like order, to some degree. When all structure and authority breaks down, the inevitable chaos becomes like a cleansing fire (in the mind of the atheist) which welcomes the state to bring things back to normalcy. And then those who control the state can control society--just like in the Soviet Union.

The problem with that view is that it is essentially completely incoherent. To destroy one authority that you don't like because it creates a moral structure which you are uncomfortable with, only to replace it with another supposedly "a-moral" state is to invite a much greater degree of oppression into your life. The state may not dictate to you about who or what to have sex with or when, but it certainly WILL proscribe to itself (eventually) the authority to dictate who gets to have children, and when, and of what gender. The atheist who hates being "contolled" by a 2000 year old book would be far, FAR more troubled by the control of a state that reinvents right and wrong every other week.

Its not that atheists don't believe in God; it's that they dislike the rules of living that religion has "imposed" on society, so they have to assert that there actually is no Higher Authority.

And, in the end, INCOHERENT is the best word to describe The Golden Compass. See it if you want, but don't let your children see it without you. And drink plenty of caffeine before you go in.

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