Operation Finale is one of those kinds of movies that is just good enough to make me wish it had been better. It’s based on the true story of an Israeli team of spies that located Adolph Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), one of Hitler’s lieutenants who authored The Final Solution. He’s been hiding in Argentina for years and giving public lectures, which isn’t helpful with keeping a low profile. Oscar Isaac (The Last Jedi) leads the Israeli spies as they plot to kidnap Eichmann, get him to admit his guilt for the Holocaust in writing, and smuggle him out of the country and to Israel to stand trail for the deaths of millions. This story should be exciting, it should be fascinating, it should be compelling, and for stretches it can be, but Operation Finale errs in capturing Eichmann too quickly. The majority of the film is the spy team holding him in a secret location and interrogating him, while the surprisingly Nazi-coddling police force of Argentina hunts for their location. I’m assuming the filmmakers were accurately telling the true story, but you start to question why the spies are taking their sweet time. Why not get on a boat as soon as possible and sail to another country to fly away, one less friendly to former Nazis? There aren’t really any set pieces where their cover might be blown. It’s mostly Isaac talking with Kingsley, and while their conversations are entertaining, it’s yet another preview of a better movie that we’re never going to have delivered. The film lacks enough urgency. The characterization is too limited and the supporting characters are more faces than people; Melanie Laurent essentially plays The Woman Spy. Operation Finale should have either spent more time on the specifics and complications of nabbing Eichamann, presenting a challenge, or it could have accentuated the debate between Isaac and Kingsley over the nature of culpability, rationalization, guilt, and vengeance. There’s probably a really good Nazi-hunting mini-series or Nazi-debating play in here. Either way, the actual finished film is well made, well acted, and well intentioned but also dramatically lacking.
Nate Grade: C+
In the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.
Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.
Rogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.
There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.
It all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.
With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.
Let’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.
Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.
Nate’s Grade: B
What is it about old stories that we enjoy so much? I pose this question after watching a commercial for the TV movie, Killing Jesus, based upon Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling novel. While it’s based upon a popular book, what can possibly be told with this newest rendition of the death of Jesus that hasn’t been shown a thousand times in other movies? There was even a movie that was released in theaters last year, Son of God, which covered the same territory with equal reverence. There’s something to be said for good stories and the universal appeal of the familiar, but why do people constantly pay more money for new renditions of the same old same old? That question leads me to Disney’s live-action Cinderella, a fairly faithful and warm-hearted rendition of the oft-told tale. I can’t exactly muster many reasons for an audience to dust off their best glass slippers and run out to the theater, but if you’re looking for the comforts of old and some family-friendly entertainment, then Cinderella will charm with its modest and achievable goals.
Cinderella (Lily James) is the titular put-upon heroine suffering under the cruelty of her two stepsisters and her new Stepmother (Cate Blanchett). Cinderella thinks back to the advice her mother gave her at a young age, to always be “kind and courageous.” One day she rides off into the countryside and comes upon a handsome man who just happens to be the Prince (Richard Madden). He’s smitten with their exchange and convinces his father to open the royal ball to all members of their kingdom, in order to see his special someone once more. His adviser (Stellan Skarsgard) is against such matters because he wants the Prince to marry for a political alliance, not for love. Cinderella is forbidden from attending the ball by her Stepmother, but luckily she has a Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) who, with a pinch of magic, will make sure Cinderella attends in style and steals the Prince’s heart. None of this should be rather new to you, dear reader.
The first aspect of Cinderella I enjoyed was how it attempts to ground the story without losing a sense of magic to the proceedings. It’s still a fantasy film under director Kenneth Branagh (Thor), but there’s a concerted effort to place these characters in a world that resembles more of our own than the animated landscape from Disney’s original 1950 classic. Thankfully, half the movie isn’t spent with anthropomorphic mice wearing clothes and escaping the clutches of a house cat. There are a handful of helpful mice but at least they don’t talk and are mostly kept as cute accessories rather than co-stars. The reality of Cinderella’s hardships, especially after the death of her parents, is given an appropriate degree of solemnity. I also appreciated that the Prince is given an entire character to portray, one where his pursuit of a bride is placed in a political context about the security of his kingdom. He’s pressured to marry several available ladies for various political reasons, but he’s smitten with the girl he saw in the woods one fine day. The movie also succeeds in advancing a stronger, more developed relationship between Cinderella and her Prince. Instead of love-at-first-sight, they interact before the ball, and there is terrific chemistry between James and Madden (HBO’s Game of Thrones). There’s also a rather nice subplot between the Prince and his father (Derek Jacobi) that opens up their relationship. It’s a subplot that could have just as likely never existed and yet there’s something touching about the love shown between father and son. These moments, and the care to develop them, allow the characters to feel like flesh-and-blood people and to charm us all over again.
Another tilt toward greater narrative realism occurs with the villains, played by Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Skarsgard (Thor 2). While she’s still an arch villain, the treacherous Stepmother, who has no actual name, is given a generous treatment by Blanchett and especially writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass). The movie actually attempts to articulate her position, one where a woman of her age is left with few options to secure her family’s stability after the death of a husband. She clearly knows how society sees her waning value and Blanchett does a good job of casting that bitterness in way that you’re still reminded why she’s so furious and devious. I was so pleased I wanted more. I wanted the Stepmother to break down and admit that Cinderella is proof that her father will never love the Stepmother the same as Cinderella’s mother; she’ll always be second place to a ghost, and Cinderella is a constant reminder of this. Blanchett is also deliciously dishy as the wicked stepmother every moment she’s onscreen. Skarsgard can’t compete with the main attraction, but he provides an interesting secondary antagonist as he schemes behind the scenes to ensure the Prince marries a specific maiden with a reliable family name. He’s seemingly devoted to strengthening his kingdom, and he can’t let something as important as a marriage securing an alliance to fall aside because the Prince happens to be in love with a commoner. The extra dose of political intrigue is further attempt to ground and humanize the fairy tale, and it mostly succeeds.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its fantasy pleasures. It is still a Disney movie about a famous Disney princess, and as such it maintains a bouncy, exuberant tone that keeps the heavier moments of drama from getting too heavy. Carter (Les Miserables) works wonders as the Fairy Godmother; she’s only in the movie for a solid ten minutes but she makes every second count. She has a silly nature that provides a welcomed jolt of scatterbrained comedy. Carter is clearly having a ball of her own with the role. The magical coachmen and assorted helpers supply extra cuteness. I also appreciated the quick fix of just creating a spell so that Cinderella’s step-family doesn’t recognize her at the ball. However, I never understood why all the artifacts of magic disappear at midnight but the shoes are left behind. Are they not magic too? Maybe only one of them happens to be magic and that was the one left behind. As presented, the shoe fitting is merely a ceremony rather than the missing clue toward finding the absent Cinderella.
So with all that said, does the new live-action Cinderella justify retelling what is one of the most retold stories in cinema history? I’d conclude a mild affirmative. It’s a charming adaptation that develops its characters with greater attention to detail, providing flights of fancy but also further humanizing the good guys and the bad. It’s no a deconstruction of the fairy tale, nor is it a revision, but it’s a faithful attempt to take what works but ground it in a slightly more realistic context, and it works. It’s at turns magical and touching and fun and buoyant and heartwarming. The casting all around is excellent, with every role impeccably chosen. Blanchett and Carter are great fun, and James and Madden have a winning chemistry. The technical merits are up to the same challenge, as the costumes and set design are gorgeous. Of course the aims of a new Cinderella movie are modest. Even if it benefits from a reworked attention to detail, we’re not reinventing the wheel here. It’s still the same story with the same major plot beats and the same ending we’ll all expect from the moment the Disney logo appears onscreen. The greatest achievement of Branagh’s Cinderella is that it makes you ignore these impulses. You find yourself once again returning to a familiar world and enjoying it all again.
Nate’s Grade: B
Admittedly, I am not a fan of the Twilight series. I have never read one of the books but I didn’t hate the first Twilight movie. I thought it kind of worked on its own merits even if it wasn’t for me. However, New Moon is a crushing bore and a mess.
Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is celebrating her eighteenth birthday with her vampire boyfriend, the 119-year-old Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). She accidentally cuts her finger and the sight of blood sends one of the Cullen vampires crazy with instinct. Edward concludes that his love would be safer without him. He bids her goodbye and promises, “This is the last time you will ever see me,” forgetting that there are two more books to go. Bella is heartbroken and spends months in a stupor. She finds solace with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her friend of many years. Jacob’s people are indigenous Native Americans to the area, and he holds a secret as well. Turns out that Jacob is a werewolf. Now Bella has to decide between a vampire or a werewolf (does a Frankenstein monster enter the romantic fray later?). Edward mistakenly believes that Bella has died, so he too wants to die and will seek execution at the hands of the illustrious Vultari, the ruling vampire clan in Italy. Bella must decide between her two loves.
I can precisely indicate where everything goes wrong for the abysmal New Moon — the character of Bella Swan. For the majority of this sequel, I didn’t just detest and dislike her I downright hated her. I hated her. I understand her appeal to the millions of Meyer’s literary acolytes, but man does she come across as a self-centered, casually cruel, messed up girl who spends most of her time being whiny, mopey, and sulky. It’s not just that she has a guy interested in her, it’s the absurd notion that every man cannot get enough of this sullen gal. As presented in New Moon, Bella is such a dour and lifeless personality. I cannot see whatsoever why she is worth such effort. This criticism may be tracked all the way to Meyer’s source material, making Bella absent in defining character dynamics expressly so pre-teen readers can insert themselves as the character and swoon over being the object of universal desire. It is insultingly thin wish fulfillment that this girl has every man, vampire, and werewolf fighting over her in the Pacific Northwest. After Edward leaves, she shuts herself out and rejects all her friends. We see in one camera pan that she spends literal months in a stupor. I understand that teenagers think everything is the end of the world, but she and Edward were together for, what, a few months? Then again, heartache is something that knows no exact time frame for healing, so consider this but a quibble. Bella seems to push others away except when she needs a set of ears to whine.
It is post-Edward where Bella becomes insular, self-centered in her pursuit of danger placing herself in stupidly reckless scenarios, and hurtful. Where Bella really infuriated me is her treatment of her lifelong friend, Jacob. Obviously the big guy has a thing for his her and she knows this, which allows Bella to string Jacob along for almost a whole movie. She leads this little doggie along, teasing him with a “Maybe I will be with you, maybe I won’t” dance that becomes irritating and rather loathsome. Jacob is a swell guy who has looked out for Bella from day one, accepted her coupling with a vampire, sworn enemy of werewolves, and he’s been the best listener to all her self-involved drama. Plus this guy is ripped and has hip flexors that could cut glass. And he is there for her and didn’t abandon her like Edward. So Bella toys with her self-described “best friend” until she can hear the word “Edward” and then she can think about nothing else, even after months of complete separation. I understand that Edward has the sexy, brooding, bad boy appeal, where women think they will magically be the key ingredient to change the troubled man for the better. But on the flipside, Jacob thinks he?’ the key ingredient to finally get Bella to commit to a healthy relationship, and he gets screwed. Seriously, what’s the worse thing about dating a werewolf? You may have to take him for more walks. I suppose this makes me sound like I’m on Team Jacob, as the fans call themselves. I’m really on Team Bella Deserves to be Alone.
I don’t want to sound unduly harsh. I don’t necessarily have an inherent dislike for characters that make bad decisions or who are, at their core, unlikable. I could forgive the sins of Bella Swan if she had even a hint of subtext. Bella Swan is a void of personality. I cannot recall if this was the same with Twilight, which I haven’t seen since I watched it on opening day in the theater a year ago.
What also sinks New Moon is how it repeats the same plot from Twilight. Once again Bella feels alone, she finds comfort in a boy that says they can’t be together, this intrigues her and pushes her into action, she’s warned of danger, and then finally she settles in with a pseudo relationship with a supernatural stud who makes blanket promises like “I’ll always protect you,” and, “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” It’s not complex folks; Meyer is just feeding pre-teen girls their fantasy of a male romantic interest. Because of this repetitious plot structure, very little of substance happens during the overlong 130 minutes of New Moon. Bella kinda sorta almost gets involved with a werewolf, there’s some lousy Romeo and Juliet allusions, and thanks to a delightfully hammy Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen), we learn a little bit about what makes Bella special to the world of vampires (it’s telling that her “specialty” is her lack of reaction). Beyond that, this is two hours of posturing and some gratuitous beefcake shots of shirtless men. My theater was sold out and packed with the Twilight faithful who swooned when they saw Edward strutting in slow-mo and openly hollering in approval when Jacob first whipped off his shirt. For supernatural creatures, they do more brooding than anything.
Director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy) replaces Catherine Hardwicke to steer the second movie. I actually think Hardwicke had the right sensibilities for this franchise and she brought a youthful, rambunctious spirit that gave the first film a teenage synergy that made the romance feel pulpy. Weitz does away with this and makes the movie feel more ornate and chaste and dull. The execs spent major money to film in Italy for the vampire Volturi clan, but as near as I can tell some sets would have done the trick. Note to filmmakers: if you spend money to film in an exotic location, show it. As far as I can tell, Weitz was hired because of the bump up in special effects for this picture. Gone are goofy vampire baseball sequences and now we have cheesy wolf battle sequences, which come across like a less refined version of the polar bear brawl from Golden Compass. The special effects have improved but that doesn’t mean they?re good.
This isn’t exactly the kind of movie that asks for much from its actors, and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg distills Meyer’s text to the point that the actors pout and yearn. Stewart is an actress I have liked for years since Panic Room, so imagine how I would feel about the Bella character with a less capable actress. Pattinson is absent for almost the entire movie and it’s hard to say that his presence was missed. The best actor of this weird love triangle is Lautner who at least seems to have some fun with his role. He has an amiable spirit that penetrates all the gloom. He’s come a long way from being Shark Boy in 2005?s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.
The plot is a shadow of the first film, and the main character is annoying and hard to sympathize with, there?s so little of consequence that happens, it?s way too long, and, oh yeah, did I mention how much I disliked Bella Swan? At this point, the Twilight franchise is a juggernaut that cannot be contained (as I write this it’s poised to make over $70 million on opening day) and the Twi-hards will find the movie to be catnip, swooning at the visualized male sex objects. For anyone outside the cult of Twilight, the movie version of New Moon will fail to communicate the appeal of the series. The movie feels bloodless. Twilight is like a tedious soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. I think I’ll stick with HBO’s True Blood, a more nuanced, adult, sexy, and just plain fun series following vampire-human love. Bella could learn plenty from Sookie Stackhouse.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Beloved by many and condemned by others, Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, is widely popular. New Line Cinema placed an expensive wager in adapting the first book of the series, The Golden Compass, with the express desire of having their own Narnia-style franchise. Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) was hired to adapt and direct the enterprise. The final tally had the budget somewhere around $180 million, add in an extra $60 million for marketing, and New Line was pretty much banking their studio’s fortunes on this would-be fantasy blockbuster. Trouble is, there is not built in audience for a Golden Compass movie. The books are more popular overseas and less than ten years old, so there hasn’t been enough time to build a sense of lore or greater anticipation, like with Narnia. As of this writing, it looks like The Golden Compass is going to tap out at about $70 million domestic haul, and while I have no doubt that figure will be much higher overseas, I do not think it is a coincidence that soon after The Golden Compass fizzled New Line buried the hatchet with Peter Jackson and started the process on engineering two Hobbit movies. You see, that’s guaranteed money in the bank unlike The Golden Compass.
On a parallel Earth, people walk around with their souls in the form of animals known as daemons. These creatures serve as conscience, servant, and protector. Until a child reaches adulthood the daemon will often change form until it settles on one creature, be it a cat or a hawk or a toad. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered an inter-dimensional hole around the Arctic Circle, and a magical substance known as Dust is seeping through. The all-powerful Magisterium feels that they know best for others and that people need to be told what to do, and they most certainly do not appreciate Lord Asriel’s scientific discovery. They have decided to silence him permanently as he travels to the Arctic.
Meanwhile, Lord Asriel’s niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is investigating poor orphans that seem to be vanishing around her school. The Magisterium has taken an interest in Lyra and “asked” that she accompany Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an icy woman with a wicked monkey as a daemon. She has great hopes for Lyra, but soon the child realizes she is a prisoner in the care of Mrs.. Coulter and that the Magisterium is responsible for abducting children and conducting experiments to remove their daemons from them forever.
She escapes and heads to the North, and finds help amongst nomadic people known as Gyptians, an air cowboy (Sam Elliott), a group of flying witches led by Serafina (Eva Green, as lovely as ever), and a scarred and grumpy polar bear named Lorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) who has been exiled from the Ice Bear kingdom after losing in one-on-one combat with the cruel current king, Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane). Lyra leads this motley crew to the Arctic where the Magisterium is keeping the absconded children for experiments.
Most noticeably absent is a sense of wonder. The Golden Compass kind of plods along, and when new magical creatures are introduced they’re done so with such matter-of-fact complacency. If they can’t pretend to be impressed then why should I? There’s a difference between playing the fantastic straight and just shrugging it off. The structure of the screenplay doesn’t help things much. Many subplots feel rushed or grafted on to a lumbering plot that collects minor characters like static cling; it isn’t until the climax that the whole slew of people combines forces. As a result, some subplots are far more interesting than others, like the world of armored polar bears. This imaginative diversion, like much of Golden Compass, reveals itself as simply a side step in a plot littered with nothing but side steps. Just as soon as the storyline has started it’s pretty much over and the movie has moved on to new ground.
The movie fluctuates between the silly and the confusing. The hardest part of any fantasy film is establishing the rules and laws of this new realm, and The Golden Compass seems a tad overburdened in trying to explain its world. Weitz’s adaptation is heavy in lugubrious exposition without the benefit of drawn-out explanation. Often some character will explain something briefly and then the audience is left to orient themselves with this new morsel of information. Cosmic dust, alternate dimensions, Magesteriums, daemons, Gyptians, polar bears, witches, prophecies, it’s a bit much to decipher for an adult let alone a child (I’m convinced that the sluggish pace and confusing jumble of a story will totally bore kids). The golden compass itself is a very awkward creation and really has little purpose or connection to the events of the film. First off, in order to pose a question a person must align three hands to varying pictures to best describe what they will ask (how many pictures do you need to ask where you left your keys?).
The book’s anti-ideology stance has been severely watered down and replaced with half-hearted euphemisms. Gone are any overt references to the church or Christianity, instead the movie couches its ire in vague authoritarian terms, a giant entity that wants to separate children from their daemons (souls) to purify them from Dust (sin). I do find it amusing that the villainess is a tall, thin blonde woman named Mrs. Coulter, though this seems more coincidence than indignation. There is a brief scene in the film where a bunch of frowning, older white men (one of them Christopher Lee) sit around a table clucking their tongues and talking up their evil scheme; that’s about as provocative as the movie gets. But by sanitizing the book’s provocative nature, Weitz has produced a movie adaptation that feels too silly to be taken at face value and too bland to be taken as anything but.
From an effects-driven perspective, The Golden Compass is admirable even if few of the CGI works manage to truly dazzle. The special effects are sturdy for a tale with such demands as talking animals and winter icescapes. The bear battle is the film’s highlight but a climax involving a sprawling brawl, which visually indicates a person’s death by a daemon vanishing into a cloud of gold smoke, is fun to watch. Sadly, an ongoing sense of fun or enjoyment is missing from most of The Golden Compass. It feels more dutiful when it should be wondrous and timid when it should be exciting.
The Golden Compass is a less spirited fantasy adventure that skimps on what makes the genre special. It has no sense of awe and wonder, and even worse the movie is structured in a rush with little time for clarification and growing characters. The film is crammed with cheerless exposition and the bulk of the plot is built around a lame rescue attempt. Weitz has sanitized the intellectual and religious provocations of the book to appeal to greater mass audiences, but by doing so he’s robbed the audience of substantial subtext. The Golden Compass even ends on kind of an unresolved, Fellowship of the Ring, “Oh, it’s over” kind of way, finishing before even reaching the climax of the first book it’s based upon. I have read that the studio shot these scenes, and you can even see them in the original trailer and access them via the video game tie-in. They wanted to save them for the start of a second movie. It may be painfully obvious to most, but allow me to say it: there is not going to be a second movie. The Golden Compass is a slightly entertaining but mostly charmless fantasy film. Someone figure out the right three pictures to ask, “How could we have made this movie better?”
Nate’s Grade: C+