The Golden Compass
The Golden Compass is based off the book of the same name, part of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I went into this movie having not read the book, so this review is based completely off the movie itself. The setting is a world parallel to ours, where people’s souls reside outside their bodies, in an animal spirit form called a daemon. When a person is a child, their daemon has the ability to shift forms; when they grow into an adult, the daemon settles and takes a single form.
The Magisterium, the ruling powers that be. They’re the movie’s villains, and are willing to do whatever need be to keep their hold on powers. This spans from attempts to poison dissenters to nefarious research that uh, spoilers.
The main character is a girl named Lyra Belacqua. She’s an orphan who is living at a college, placed there by her uncle Asriel, who is affiliated in some capacity with the college. She’s spunky and rebellious, doesn’t do as she’s told, hates to study, and loves to run amok outside the college walls with her best friend Roger and a gang of Gyptian children led by a boy named Billy. They tell tales to scare each other of the Gobblers, who steal children in the night.
Lyra, in the course of being a rapscallion, overhears her uncle Asriel ask for funds to research particles known as Dust. Dust is a mysterious influence on the world, and no one seems to know much about it. The Magisterium has aligned itself against the existence and influence of Dust, while the scholars at the college want to know more. The scholars at one point created a device called an alethiometer—the golden compass—which uses Dust to show the user truth. The Magisterium managed to have all but one of the compasses destroyed, and the last is safely hidden within the college.
Asriel is granted funds and departs. Not long after, a woman named Mrs. Coulter shows up. Despite being affiliated with the Magisterium, she convinces the college to allow her to take Lyra from the college to act as her assistant in a journey north. The head of the college is reluctant, but agrees. He gives Lyra the compass before she leaves, warning her to tell no one she has it. The night before Lyra leaves with Mrs. Coulter, her friends Roger and Billy disappear. Lyra and Mrs. Coulter depart to Mrs. Coulter’s house.
That’s the sum of what happens in the first 20-30 minutes of the movie. The movie continues apace—fast, with lots of information packed into a short period of time. We meet dozens of people: the Gyptian king, the witch queen, a cowboy aeronaut, talking, armored ice bears (the King and the heir he illegitimately dethroned), mercenaries, and more. We also see lots of interesting magic and technology: the golden compass, first and foremost, spy flies, flying airships, the incision machine, and more there as well.
I can’t speak to the movie’s accuracy, but I think it was decent as a stand-alone. The biggest problem, and I’m sure it’s readily apparent, is that there’s A LOT going on, and not enough time to give all the individual aspects the attention they deserve. Dust is the big, interweaving focus of the movie, but even at the end, we don’t know much about it. I feel like all the secondary characters—the Gyptians, the witches, etc.—weren’t given nearly the depth they deserved, and the movie seemed like it was rushing to get everything in.
If you’re a fan of gorgeous visuals and fantasy, with a generally solid story backing it up, this is a good movie. It’s certainly pushed me to add the books to my ‘to read’ list, since I have no doubt that the story is even better without the time constraints of the movie parsing it down. Lyra is a wonderful protagonist, who learns and loves and is brave and strong in the face of her fears.
I spend most of my time writing, reading, or playing with all things website design. Writing is a passion I found late in life (read: college), but it’s stuck with me in a way that nothing else has. I love telling stories, creating worlds and characters and families and relationships. I mostly stick to fantasy, because I love structuring magic systems, and I always stick to romance, because I love seeing people get their happy endings. –Sasha L. Miller