The studio shelved the franchise, but the one film they created is a bonkers, steampunk masterpiece that deserves a wider appreciation.
Fantasy films amassed tremendous box office grosses in the early 2000s, driven mostly by the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, but those particular wells were drying up by 2007. Writers with fantasy trilogies in their oeuvres were in demand as studios hoped to create the next cash cow, ignoring the organic cultural phenomena germane to Tolkien, Rowling and their signature characters. New Line Cinema put its faith and development dollars behind author Philip Pullman’s award-winning trilogy, His Dark Materials, a British property that featured elements that made Middle-Earth and Hogwarts so appealing like the quest narrative and extraordinary children saving their worlds. The studio banked its future on the belief that it could catalyze audiences toward a complicated narrative that lacked resonance beyond their marketing efforts. Instead, New Line got the kind of flop that causes corporate restructuring. The Golden Compass, based on the first of Pullman’s books, was released in December of 2007 with expectations of a Christmas windfall, but received indifference from critics and moviegoers. The studio shelved the franchise, but the one film they created is a bonkers, steampunk masterpiece that deserves a wider appreciation.
From its sleek zephyrs to its armored polar bears, The Golden Compass offers a stunning, steampunk aesthetic that emerges from an unexpected source. At the point of its release, writer/director Chris Weitz’s most popular works were the comedies American Pie and About a Boy, hardly the CV full of big budget expertise. He masterfully layers a parallel earth where human souls manifest as animals that walk outside the body, magnificent Victorian cities are both antiquated and wildly futuristic and frontiers still exist for airship flying cowboys to explore. Utilizing Spielberg’s favorite technique of exploring wonder through a child’s eyes, the story centers on Lyra Belacqua, a ward of a university that supports the scientific explorations of her Uncle Asriel. Lyra is unrepentant in her curiosity, rebellious, occasionally profane and embodied perfectly by Dakota Blue Richards. All the wonder revolves around the child actor and she delivers a performance where she is rightly skeptical of the adults around her and clever enough to forge her own destiny.
To support the young actor, Weitz employed a supporting cast of fantasy franchise veterans and Shakespearean luminaries. Daniel Craig spent some of his James Bond capital for the role of Asriel. Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Coulter, a lady of influence in the Magisterium, a quasi-governmental and religious institution that seeks to oppress the human impulse to free inquiry and Sam Elliot brings his general cool to Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut from Texas and gunslinger. Ian McKellan lends his famous voice to disgraced polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, and Eva Green plays Serafina Pekkala, a witch queen and ally of Lyra. Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee and Jim Carter all make appearances as heroes and villains. They are all thrust into a world where Asriel is on the cusp of confirming the existence of the multiverse while Lyra and her companions seek to solve the mystery of the vanishing poor children that are missing from this world’s version of London. The golden compass, a device that speaks in symbols that Lyra has an innate ability to decipher, points them north to the freezing country of armored bears and witches.
Every time a movie flops, the rumors amass, and the postmortem is no different for The Golden Compass. In the books Pullman takes a critical stand against religion, a stance a movie studio with a big budget offering will avoid at all costs. In the film the Magisterium appears more governmental than god-fearing, oppressive by its nature to preserve power without a fanatical bent. While a critique of theocracy would have been a welcome change from an industry risk averse when working on a four quadrant marketing strategy, to expect one to make the final cut feels naïve. Weitz still manages an imaginative and unsettling script without investigating that particular horror, but the first act does play like a sprint. From the prologue to Lyra’s escape from Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium, the film lays down multiple plotlines with a haste that defies development. Important matters get lost and it can be difficult to remember why something is happening if it falls outside of Lyra’s story and her immediate experience.
For someone so small, Richards is a dynamic lead, Lyra a great character and the world of The Golden Compass textured and fascinating. Typically this is the part of the story where one asks what might have been if the audiences had shown up and armored polar bear toys were the rage of Christmas 2007, but HBO has decided to answer those inquiries. His Dark Materials has been tapped to help fill the void left by Game of Thrones with Logan’s Dafne Keen playing Lyra, Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter and James McAvoy as Asriel. Prestige television may be a more appropriate venue for Philip Pullman’s vision, but hopefully it will spur interest in its predecessor. The Golden Compass offered a different vision of film fantasy in 2007. If the television version proves successful, maybe the movie will finally get some of the praise it deserves.