The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is this holiday season's uber-expensive (try $180 million) family-friendly fantasy epic. No doubt, the movie is attracting a lot of attention (and has been for the past year leading up to its release) due to what we have been warned is a staunchly anti-Christian message. These criticisms have largely been based on the source material for the movie: namely Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy of children's books.

There is a sense in which this material warrants two different reviews, one focusing on the written series and the other dealing with the movie on its own merits. This present review is the latter, and to be quite honest, my exposure to the Dark Materials series of books extends only as far as Al Mohler's discussion ( Without a doubt, based on Mohler's discussion of the book series, Christians should make sure their children are capable of reading with a critical eye before letting them anywhere near the books (especially the last of the series, it sounds like).

However, having just come from the movie, I can say that as a film it is exciting, entertaining, and crammed full of bombast and adventure. The scale is epic, the battles are massive, and there is an open ending (so you can bet that if it pays off financially, we'll see a second one in a year or so). The film hasn't been getting the greatest reviews (47% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I can't really understand why. For what it is (an epic family adventure), the film is entertaining - exactly what movies are supposed to be, really.

The question is, does the film dip into the same well of error and lies that the books seem to? The answer is both yes ... and no. While the film clearly establishes the Magesterium as the "bad guys" within the first few minutes of screen time, the fact that this is an alternate universe leaves viewers wondering if this is the same as the Roman church we think of when the term "magesterium" is used in our universe. There is no mention of Jesus - not even a reference to God. The Magesterium is, for all intents and purposes, an atheological entity which simply has the same pomp, elegance, and visual flair which we often attribute to the Roman Catholic Church. It is an organization of goons whose purpose seems largely ethical, not theological.

The Magesterium is kidnapping children and attempting to experimentally separate them from their daemon (in the universe of The Golden Compass, everyone's daemon - or soul - walks beside them in the form of an animal instead of dwelling within them). The reason they are doing this is that they think that children may be better behaved if they can take the child's "soul" from them early in life before the are able to learn to do right or wrong (this mysterious substance "dust" has something to do with "sin" and disobedience in the world, but the film doesn't flesh this out). Mohler's blog seems to indicate that this has something to do with taking away the child's sexual desire before they reach adolescence, but this is not obvious in the context of the film.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the Magesterium does not seem to define sin as rebellion against God, but rather as disobedience to their commands. The implications of this might lead one back to a discussion of the self-authenticating claims that Rome makes, but we will let that be a rabbit trail for others to follow.

In the book and in interviews, Pullman has said that the Magesterium and the Christian Church are meant to be one and the same. But in the universe adapted for the screen by writer/director Chris Weitz, such is hardly made clear. If anything is being attacked, it is organizations such as Rome - or even cults - who use their dogma and absolute self-authenticating authority in an abusive way.

The film is of the typical fantasy fare. It has magic, flying witches, talking polar bears, and giant airships (I'm a sucker for those). If you were one of those people who refused to see Lord of the Rings because of Gandalf's magic stick, you'll probably stay away from this film for the same reasons. Overall, though, magic is even less prominent than it was in the Harry Potter films.

Christians should engage the culture, and this film and book series at least deserves our attention. We need to always remember, however, that fantasy is a muddled affair and not as easy to pin down as some would like. It's one thing to criticize the new Christopher Hitchens book, and quite another to attack fiction when it seems to criticize something non-fictional. Whether or not we decide to let our children read the His Dark Materials series, it seems clear to me that this film will hardly set anyone on the road to perdition. As for the rest of the series, well . . . let's take it one film at a time.

The Golden Compass, New Line Cinema. Rated PG-13

Reviewed by Adam Parker