Chris Weitz's disappointing adaptation of the first book in English novelist Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy feels simultaneously too long and desperately rushed: For all the complicated backstory, weighty themes, action set pieces and fanciful production design, it's oddly unengaging.
Though the film is positioned as a straightforward good-vs.-evil epic, Pullman posits a more nuanced struggle between the thorny freedom of self-determination and blind submission to authority. In hopes of getting newcomers up to speed, Weitz starts with a lumbering lump of voiceover exposition, whose gist is that there are parallel worlds connected by a metaphysical bond called Dust, and in this one, a vaguely Steampunk Europe, people's souls live outside their bodies in the form of animal familiars called "daemons."
Twelve-year-old orphan Lyra Belacqua (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) has been raised at venerable Jordan University, courtesy of her uncle, famous explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). Asriel, newly returned from the Arctic Circle with evidence that Dust really exists, visits Jordan in hopes of securing funds for another expedition; his request is opposed by the Magisterium, an oppressive religious authority dedicated to suppressing independent thought, but approved by Jordan's faculty. Once Asriel departs, the glamorous and powerful Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) whisks Lyra away from the scholars, though not before they entrust the child with the titular "golden compass." In the right hands, the device reveals the truth of any situation, and it's the last of its kind; the Magisterium destroyed the rest. The plot is kicked into frantic gear when Lyra's best friend, Roger (Ben Walker), is kidnapped by shadowy child stealers — "gobblers" — and she flees Mrs. Coulter's perfumed clutches to rescue him. In the process, she acquires colorful allies — the seagoing Gyptians; a beautiful witch (Eva Green); "aeronaut" Lee Scoursby (Sam Elliott); and Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen), a talking, armored polar bear with royal blood — and learns some startling truths about herself.
Despite a top-notch cast that includes Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay, Clare Higgins, and the voices of Ian McShane, Kathy Bates, and Kristin Scott Thomas, the rich characterizations that gave the RINGS films resonance are missing. Worse, it doesn't end so much as stop, which might be less frustrating were sequels guaranteed. But New Line Cinema declined to commit to a trilogy as they did with LORD OF THE RINGS, presumably because of uncertainty that there was a guaranteed audience: Pullman's books are both less familiar than Tolkien's and more controversial, thanks to their negative characterization of organized religion. But ultimately what matters in fantasy films, whatever their underlying themes, is the magic that facilitates surrender to someone else's imagination. And for all the massive special effects, it's just not here.
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 2007
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Chris Weitz's disappointing adaptation of the first book in English novelist Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy feels simultaneously too long and desperately rushed: For all the complicated backstory, weighty themes, action set pieces and fanciful… (more)