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The Golden Compass: Innocent Adventure or Atheist Gateway?

  • Eric Rice Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2007 12 Dec
  • COMMENTS
<i>The Golden Compass</i>: Innocent Adventure or Atheist Gateway?

DVD Release Date:  April 29, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  December 7, 2007
Rating:  PG-13 (for sequences of fantasy violence)
Genre:  Action Adventure/Family
Run Time:  113 minutes
Director:  Chris Weitz
Actors:  Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore, Ian McKellen, Eva Green, Jim Carter, Tom Courtenay, Ian McShane, Sam Elliott, Derek Jacobi

Witches are our friends … little girls can lie to anyone as long as it is for the “right” cause … “daemons” are our friends (and souls) and take the form of animals.  These are some of the lessons we learn in The Golden Compass.

A lot of controversy surrounds the movie, which is based on Philip Pullman’s widely read trilogy, His Dark Materials.  But is this big-budget film (estimated at $150 million plus) a fun, family experience or a pied-piper of atheism in disguise?

Granted, The Golden Compass has lots of compelling elements.  Big stars like Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, and Ian McKellen.  The plot is interesting, and it has first-rate, absolutely gorgeous effects and CG scenery. The sets and wardrobes are award-winning quality.  The musical score perfectly compliments the action.  Sound effects are seamless and believable, and the story is entertaining.  So what’s the problem here?  Will The Golden Compass lead millions of young readers/viewers astray?  Possibly. 

It begins with the movie’s opening line:  “There are millions of galaxies with many races of people. Some have their souls inside their bodies; others have their souls walk beside them.  We are those people.  Our souls take on the form of animals that we call daemons.”

In the story, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is a pre-teen girl who’s a handful, to say the least.  She’s strong-willed, amazingly brave and resourceful.  Lyra is raised under the care of the scholars of Jordan College in a world that is greatly influenced by the Magisterium, a religious order that is clearly a thinly-veiled play on Catholicism and some Protestant churches.

The Magisterium basically rules the planet with the idea of “controlling” the general public and protecting it from unhealthy thinking and practices. Everyone in the movie has an animal “daemon” with them. Some animals can speak to their people and are cute and cuddly, and some are tiger-like or even reptilian. Young animals can shape-shift into any creature they want until the person becomes an adult.

Lyra and Pantalaimon (her daemon—mostly in the form of a ferret-like creature) are friends with a handsome scientist, Lord Asriel (Craig) who is on a quest to discover the source of “dust”—a magical golden powder that he has seen in his journeys and may be the key to other dimensions and civilizations.  The Magisterium have, until now, squashed all knowledge of “dust” from the general populace and frantically try to stop Asriel.

Lyra comes into possession of a strange and beautiful metaphysical compass that acts as a lie detector, as well as a mirror, into the near-future. Beautiful Mrs. Coulter (Kidman) requests from the Magisterium that she be allowed to take Lyra on a journey to the icy north to meet the Polar Bear Warriors.  Soon Lyra realizes that Mrs. Coulter and her creepy monkey daemon are not nice creatures and decides to make a break for it and find the now missing, presumed lost, Lord Asriel on her own.  She is helped by some mysterious, pirate-like gypsies called Gyptians, who are on a quest to find out what is happening to all the disappearing children (they suspect a group called “Gobblers").

Lyra’s best friends disappeared one night, and she is now caught up in a race to find her friends and Asriel before something terrible happens. On the way she rescues a whiskey-swilling polar bear who has lost his honor in combat, and now has a new lease on life from little Lyra.  She is also helped by a friendly witch named Serifina (Eva Green), and a balloon-flying cowboy “Aeronot” Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) and his long-eared rabbit daemon.

Like The Lord of the Rings, there is a new vocabulary to learn here, and the film moves quickly.  As Lyra and her rag-tag gang move to their destination, there is skullduggery, combat and lies, some perpetrated by our little protagonist!  The people of this fantastic world look to Lyra in a way like the folks of Lord of the Rings looked to Aragorn.  Could this girl be “the one” they’re waiting for?

The Golden Compass has an uncomfortable quality to it.  It’s that anti-hero, “the good guy can be bad” type of feel, with no character who’s a real source of light.  A general heaviness and darkness pervades and follows the film, much with the help of Nicole Kidman’s beautiful evilness.

In the past, there have been many movies that take cheap shots at Christianity, and they have come and gone very quickly, disappearing into obscurity.  But The Golden Compass is different somehow.  It may do very well at the box office, and as a “Christmas movie” could bring in the children (and mommy’s and daddy’s money) by the millions. The fact that it’s a trilogy will have kids racing to the bookstore to buy the books to stay ahead of the releases … just like the Harry Potter series. 

This first movie downplays the evil, anti-Christian elements of the book, but if this movie does well, the producers will make the second and third books into movies, and the director has indicated he’d be more true to the books' (anti-God) intentions. 

In a recent interview Director Chris Weitz said: “Whereas The Golden Compass has to be introduced to the public carefully, the religious themes in the second and third books can’t be minimized without destroying the spirit of these books. There is simply no way to adapt them without dealing with Lyra’s destined role, her secret name, and the war in the heavens. I will not be involved with any ‘watering down’ of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third films. If I sense that this is not possible, there’s no point my continuing to work on them.”

Even worse, writer Pullman proudly told The Washington Post in 2001 of the trilogy, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”
      
So, is this movie a threat?  Will it lead children away from a personal knowledge of God?  Or, will it become a key opportunity to talk to children about the real adventure of knowing a living God who wants to know them in a personal way?

Though The Golden Compass may be a “gateway” movie for atheism, and gave this reviewer the “willies,” we have a God who is not afraid.  He is a King who knows no equal and is not the least intimidated by confused, lost people wanting to lash out at him.  Maybe we should act like him and find ways to use this film to teach children about how to discern movies, analyzing them for themes and values.  After all, it is just a movie, and we are children of the King.

If you bring your children to The Golden Compass, please take time to have dialogue with them about Magisterium vs. Christianity, make-believe vs. truth.  A good resource for educating your family is Dr. Ted Baehr’s book, The Media Wise Family.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  A bear drinks whiskey.
  • Language:  Mild name-calling.
  • Sex:  None.
  • Violence:  Woman choking a child with magic, slapping a monkey, men dying of arrows, gunfire, explosions. A bear fight with the antagonist bear having it’s jaw ripped off.
  • Worldview:  Mystical.  Magic is “normal.”  The church is an evil threat.  “Daemons” are helpful.