Movie News & Reviews

With 'Compass,' nothing is clear

'The Golden Compass" is a movie about ... hmm. What exactly is it about?


I think that's right. Or maybe it's about finding truth. Or freedom. Or maybe it's a parable about public education.

It's hard to tell with writer and director Chris Weitz's interpretation of "The Golden Compass," the first of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy for young adult readers.

Initially, the focus seems to be on figuring out the deal with this dust, which sprinkles down from a city in the sky and settles in your soul. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) dispatches himself on this grave quest -- and pretty much isn't heard from again. It's here that "Compass" seems to encounter a magnetic field that sends it haywire. And sends the audience in search of a "Golden Compass" dictionary of terms to follow the action. The movie has a lexicon of its own, from alethiometers (the compass, which enables qualified users to see the truth) to daemons (critters that tote around the characters' souls) to gobblers (goons who steal children for the government) to The Magisterium (the government) to spy flies (mechanized insects) to witches (witches).

But even with a complete Golden Compass compendium you'll have trouble following this tale, which finds Lord Asriel's niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) setting off to find the orphans and street urchins being snatched off the street and taken north for a little education. Seems the little freethinkers pose a threat to The Magisterium, the rulers who know what's best for all. Or as the mysterious Mrs. Coulter, played by a Monroe-esque (Marilyn, not Bill) Nicole Kidman, explains, "It's what people need to tell them what to do."

Along the way there's the gothic Jordan College (think Harry Potter's Hogwarts), futuristic zeppelins (think *.G. Wells), good guys with bows and arrows (think Robin Hood), heavily armored ice bears (think crabby Coca-Cola polar bear on a sugar high) and a space cowboy played by deep-voiced Sam Elliott (think "Beef: It's what's for dinner"). A veritable kitchen sink worth of stuff but, as the movie progresses, few signs of dust.

Whether you've read the book or not, you'll be surprised by the "ending." I won't reveal how "The Golden Compass" ends because it doesn't. End, that is. It just stops. It's like someone from Accounting walked onto the set and said, "OK, you've spent your $180 million; let's put it in the can!"

Sequel? That could be a trick considering it's unclear what the cliffhanger element actually is.

Besides, isn't that what the other two books in the trilogy are for?