(There are spoilers below, if you care. If you haven’t read the book, though, they might help you make sense of the movie–or at least to understand how senseless it is.)
I saw The Golden Compass at a sneak preview a week ago, and it’s taken me this long to write my reflections on it—not only because of being busy, but also because, well, it just wasn’t that good. It’s not terrible, either: it’s just there, leaving little lasting impression, in spite of its grandiose music and fancy CGI.
Philip Pullman’s novel—the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy—struck me as imaginative and powerful when I first read it, way back in 2000, right before the third volume, The Amber Spyglass, was released. Yes, you could tell that Pullman was probably “of the devil’s party” and knew it, but at least he wrote a compelling story. By The Amber Spyglass, however, careful storytelling disappeared in favor of sermonizing—anti-God sermonizing, that is. I won’t go into all that, though; my point is that The Golden Compass is well written, if troubling.
The movie is just troubling, and not really for its vaguely anti-Church stance. What’s ultimately troubling is that it’s not really for anything. We don’t really get enough insight into characters to understand what motivates them. Lyra (whose skill at lying is oh-so-subtly suggested by her name) tells tall tales to get out of scrapes, and yet she is the only character who—for some reason—can read the “alethiometer,” the titular compass (“aletheia” is “truth” in Greek). As I recall, this makes some shred of sense in the book, but not in the movie: Lyra can read the compass because she’s destined to do so. Period. There’s no real significance to the alethiometer, except to propel the plot along, to give Lyra an external reason for journeying here, there, and everywhere. Very quickly.
There’s one scene where Lyra, along with the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and a troop of Gyptians (Gypsies) are trekking through snow, on their way to free children from the grim fortress of Bolvangar. The script has Lee say a line about how they need to be careful with the aeroship parts that, for some reason, they are carrying with them—which just makes you wonder, “Why aren’t they flying right now in the first place?” It’s one of the most pointless scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Speaking of pointless, Lyra’s “uncle,” the explorer Lord Asriel, is reduced here to a puzzling cipher. In Hebrew, the name “Asriel” or “Asrael” refers to the Angel of Death, though it’s also associated with a demonic being … and with Gargamel’s cat on The Smurfs. So you’d think, Smurfs aside, that this is supposed to be a pretty important person (and, in fact, in the books, he leads the war against the Kingdom of Heaven). In the movie, however, Asriel’s character mostly disappears after he heads north and gets captured. We learn from Mrs. Coulter (and how does she know?) that he has been perfecting his research on other worlds while in captivity (and why do we need to know this, since he never actually does anything with it before the movie ends?).
In the book, Lord Asriel succeeds in his research before the end of the book, managing to break through to another world—by killing Lyra’s friend, the little boy Roger. Clearly this is not an unambiguously heroic rebel, even by Pullman’s standards. Instead of confronting the fact that both Lyra’s parents are rather wretched people, the movie ends with Lyra escaping her mother, eagerly sailing off in an airship to find the man she now knows is her father. Everything will be all right, she tells herself. We’ll find a way to have a sequel—oh, sorry. That’s the studio talking. At this point, Lyra actually consults the compass, which tells her that she is bringing her father “exactly what he needs.” Viewers who have read the book gasp at the irony here—what he “needs” is her little friend as a sacrificial victim—but those new to the story will be left with a false optimism very much out of tone with the rest of the movie.
And the rest of the movie is dark indeed. And violent. My fellow moviegoers gasped aloud at the violent conclusion to the battle between two Armored Bears, in which the lower half of a bear’s jaw goes flying across the screen. That was bad enough, but I was even more troubled by the scene in which Lyra visits a shed containing the skins of animals who were once children’s daemons (external embodiments of their souls, in animal form). One of Lyra’s former acquaintances, the child Billy, sits on the floor of the shed, caressing the skin of the creature that used to be his daemon, Ratter. It made me feel physically sick. This scene should be disturbing—we should be outraged that the Magisterium is severing the connection between children and their souls—but something felt wrong. It wasn’t until a few days later that I put my finger on it. Because of the way daemons have been portrayed throughout the movie, as little more than cute animal sidekicks, this scene is more like the murdering of a child’s pet than of his soul. It’s still horrifying, but it’s a different kind of horror. The book emphasizes how everyone backs away from a child without his daemon because it’s “unnatural.” In other words, the horror in the book relies less on sentiment. The movie treats daemons very sentimentally.
This is why the utter lack of sentiment for daemons in the climactic battle scene is so troubling to me. The movie, lacking Asriel’s breaking into another world as its climax, builds up a battle between the escaped children, the Gyptians, the witches, and an Armored Bear on one side—and some random people (I forget what they’re called) on the other. They’re just mercenaries hired by the Magisterium to guard Bolvangar, so no one here is fighting the real adversary. And yet the musical swells, the screen lights up with showers of golden dust (actually, Dust), which—oh, wait—is only there because the soldiers’ daemons (along with the soldiers themselves) are dying. Apparently this is beautiful and not horrifying, but there’s no hint as to why. (Pullman’s sermon on why it’s glorious to dissolve into happy little Dust particles, rather than, say, rising again and living with your soul’s Creator and Source for all eternity, doesn’t occur until the end of The Amber Spyglass.)
So, that’s about it. I can’t see how the franchise—if it continues—can improve from here, given the lesser quality of the next two books. The relative success of The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter movies, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe seems to have rushed a lot of lackluster fantasy films into production (most notably, The Dark Is Rising, which looks so bad that I refuse to see it). Here’s hoping the writer’s strike will give everyone a chance to regroup before someone decides to tackle Jonathan Stroud’s fabulous Bartimaeus Trilogy.
December 8th, 2007
Note: this review or meditation or whatever it is contains spoilers. However, Beowulf is not exactly the kind of movie that thrives on suspense, especially since most high school graduates have been forced into a passing familiarity with the plot.
I expected the experience of watching Beowulf to be something akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion. So, I thought, I might as well watch the train wreck in 3-D (Real D, for those who care). That might have been a mistake, because I’ve never seen a movie in 3-D before, and it made me dizzy. I left fairly disappointed in the visuals: motion-capture has resulted in human characters who look like people from Shrek. However, the movie as a whole was much better than I expected.
I’m not saying it was good, because that’s not it exactly. It’s very confused about whether it wants to celebrate macho-manly heroism or to mock and question it. It does both. But here’s the thing: I think that may be intentional, and I think the inconsistencies actually connect it to the original Beowulf poem . . . or at least to postmodern interpretations of the poem.
First off, Beowulf is a weird text. It’s a palimpsest of a pagan tale retold by a Christian author(s), or at least someone familiar with Christian works written in Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon literature tends to stress feats of physical valor, and the New Testament . . . well, not so much. Thus, in Anglo-Saxon Christian texts, you have Christ, like a young warrior, valiantly leaping up onto the cross to embrace his death. You wanna talk about inconsistency? It peppers this period of literature because of the difficulty of reconciling Anglo-Saxon and Christian values. And Beowulf is no exception.
However, one thing the pagan Anglo-Saxons and the Christians agreed upon was that it was bad to kill your brother (or your kin in general), so this gets a lot of emphasis in Beowulf. When Grendel is introduced, it’s in the context of the legend that monsters are the descendants of Cain, who was, of course, the first kin-slayer. I was happy that the movie kept the reference to Unferth as a kin-killer (though I could have done without some of the graphic details), because it’s especially important for the interpretive angle the movie took. If Unferth is a kin-killer, that raises the question if there’s really that much difference between some men and monsters. And, if the boundary between monsters and men is fuzzier than we thought, does that mean that Beowulf might actually be a kin-killer when he slays Grendel and the dragon?
The suggestion is there in the text (there are a lot of parallels between Beowulf in his old age and the dragon, especially with the hint that Beowulf may love gold too much), but the movie takes it and runs with it. Hrothgar, it turns out, is actually Grendel’s father, and Beowulf, thanks to Angelina Jolie’s—ahem, Grendel’s mother’s—seduction, is the dragon’s father. Do I, the textual purist, mind? Nope, not really. I think it brings out themes that are there in the text and makes them accessible to an entertainment-minded audience. I do mind the stiletto heels mysteriously growing out of Grendel’s mama’s feet, but that’s another issue.
In this Beowulf, our Geatish hero is not only fallible, but actually a blustery, overconfident liar. Much has been made of the utter absurdity of having Beowulf fight Grendel in the buff, with strategically placed candlesticks and other bits of furniture shielding his nether regions from view. Some critics have complained that this sets the wrong tone for the battle, making it comic rather than epic. I agree that it does destroy any sense of gravitas, but, again, I think that’s intentional; it reveals how ridiculous Beowulf’s o’erweening pride is. Since The Lord of the Rings movies, I think we’re too eager to make anything and everything into an epic (and actually, I think that’s one of the biggest problems with the movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—it tried to make an epic of a story that’s really a completely different—and equally satisfying in its own way—genre). Tolkien himself argued in his famous essay “The Monsters and the Critics” that Beowulf is not an epic. I don’t think he would have been happy with a postmodern, ironic treatment of the tale, either, but, as a fairly postmodern, ironic viewer, I don’t object. Given the movie trailer’s silly “I am Ripper, Slasher, Terror, Gouger. I am the teeth in the darkness” line, I had expected to see a 300-esque celebration of macho valor. But when these lines actually occur in the film, Beowulf is completely ignoring Grendel’s plea (in Anglo-Saxon) that he is not a monster, he is a son—and whamming the door repeatedly on Grendel’s arm. Not really a very neat or heroic way of vanquishing one’s foe—and that’s the point, I think.
In Beowulf’s later battle with the dragon, you do find yourself rooting for the “hero” more, maybe because the dragon looks less humanoid than Grendel. But then you remember that the dragon is Beowulf’s son, and you feel really uncomfortable that you’ve been wanting Beowulf to kill him. Again, I think that confused effect is intentional. Since the biceps-and-blood-fest 300 was such a hit, though, will most viewers be able to embrace the discomfort in a more complex (if very imperfect) film? Maybe not. And maybe I’m reading too much into the movie in the first place, interpreting artistic flaws as ironic commentary because I’m a nerd who’s read way too much literary theory.
One more observation: in his older years, Beowulf laments that the age of heroes is coming to an end, and he attributes this to the rising popularity of the “Christ-God,” who, in his view, encourages people to become suffering martyrs. Given that Beowulf isn’t exactly a model of valor and honesty, we shouldn’t interpret his words at face value, which too many reviewers have done. Yes, the movie portrays a Christian negatively in the figure of the drunkard Unferth, but there’s also the beautiful and noble queen Wealtheow, who has the misfortune to be married to two men (successively) who have succumbed to temptation from Grendel’s mother. She seems to exemplify the kind of Christian heroism that Beowulf derides. In the background of one of the scenes in her bedchamber, we see that she has been weaving an image of the risen Christ. In the later scenes, she is wearing a cross around her neck. Wealtheow is one of the most sympathetic characters from the movie’s perspective, and it’s fitting that she doesn’t boast openly about her faith, as her silent strength heightens the contrast to Beowulf’s false bravado. However, I think the lackluster animation does a disservice here, because, if she’s silent, her face needs to communicate a lot. And it doesn’t, because so far the motion-capture technique hasn’t managed to capture the subtlety of human eyes. So, unfortunately, Wealtheow comes off as just passive, rather than quiet and strong.
The movie’s last scene, in which Grendel’s mother appears once again, this time to tempt Wiglaf, ends ambiguously, before Wiglaf chooses one way or the other. He’s probably the only other really sympathetic character, because of his unswerving loyalty to Beowulf, even when he questions his judgment. So I half-wanted to see him chuck something at Grendel’s mama’s head and turn his back on her, thus becoming the new kind of hero by winning the moral victory that Beowulf couldn’t (oh, and by the way, while the visual elements certainly focus on the sexual elements of Grendel’s mother’s temptation, she is verbally offering these men power and fame and wealth—so I’m glad that sin isn’t just associated with a woman’s body). However, I can also sympathize with the decision to leave it open-ended, because if you wrap it up, you diminish the focus on the persistence of evil—human evil. So maybe I’ll get my own satisfaction by renting the movie on DVD and throwing a Nerf ball at Angelina Jolie at the end.
December 1st, 2007