When the first Harry Potter movie arrived in theaters several years ago, many Catholic families had divided views about the film. Some enjoyed it as an innocent and intriguing fantasy. Others avoided it because of its emphasis on magic. But the screen adaptation of Philip Pullman's book, The Golden Compass, which opened in Denver on Dec. 7, will likely produce far more agreement. No matter how one looks at it, The Golden Compass is a bad film. There's just no nicer way to say it.
I saw it at an 8:30 evening showing on Dec. 8. The theater was largely deserted. That may be a trend. While The Golden Compass, released by New Line Cinema, ranked No. 1 in box office revenues on its opening weekend, it took in only a modest $26.1 million. The three "Ring Trilogy" movies grossed between $47 and $72 million on their respective opening weekends, and The Chronicles of Narnia had opening revenues of more than $65 million. In fact, secular critics have been less than kind to the movie, and for good reason. It's long, complicated, and despite a very gifted supporting cast and wonderful special effects, the story is finally lifeless. Much of the movie takes place in the polar north, and the iciness of the setting is a perfect metaphor for the chilly, sterile spirit at the heart of the story. Anyone expecting a playful children's fantasy would do well to look elsewhere. There is nothing remotely "playful" about this movie.
As many readers will already know, Philip Pullman is an atheist, and The Golden Compass – the first book in his trilogy His Dark Materials – is a calculated counter-story to Christian-based fantasies like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. The Golden Compass takes place in a parallel world similar to earth, but dominated by a sinister quasi-religious authority known as the Magisterium. This powerful elite seeks to "protect" people – for their own good – by shielding them from scientific knowledge, represented by the movie's mysterious cosmic dust and a truth-telling piece of technology called an "alethiometer" (or golden compass). More specifically, the Magisterium abducts young children and literally kills their souls, thereby extinguishing the spirit of free thought and inquiry.
The aggressively anti-religious, anti-Christian undercurrent in The Golden Compass is unmistakable and at times undisguised. The wicked Mrs. Coulter alludes approvingly to a fictional version of the doctrine of Original Sin. When a warrior Ice Bear – one of the heroes of the story – breaks into the local Magisterium headquarters to take back the armor stolen from him, the exterior walls of the evil building are covered with Eastern Christian icons. And for Catholics in our own world, of course, "Magisterium" refers to the teaching authority of the Church – hardly a literary coincidence. The idea that any Christian film critics could overlook or downplay these negative elements, as some have seemed to do, is simply baffling.
Strangest of all – and in striking contrast to the Harry Potter and Narnia stories – is the absence of joy or any real laughter in the movie. The talented child actress who plays the film's leading role is hobbled by a character that is uniformly unpleasant, rebellious, belligerent and humorless; the kind of young person described by one of my parent friends as needing a "long time-out."
Obviously, parents are the primary teachers of their children. They need to use their own best judgment about whether a film is suitable for their families. But I'll certainly be encouraging my own friends to put their Christmas cash to better use. In fact, maybe the most cynical and insulting thing about The Golden Compass is that its makers would offer this cold, angry, anti-religious fable as "holiday fare" in the midst of a season built around the birth of Jesus Christ. That's certainly worth a letter to the people at New Line Cinema. With two more books in the Pullman trilogy as possible sequels, it might be helpful if they heard from all of us.