I’m sure Howard Stern’s people are speed-dialing

So there’s this Christian pop singer cutie who’s just come back from a seven-year hiatus to reveal she’s gay. Unlike Ted Haggard, she’s totally cool with her gayosity, so all props to her! But I wonder if the title of her new album Letting Go really means what she wants it to mean. Sweetheart, we’re all very happy for you, but religion is not your friend! The hate you’re about to get from those who pride themselves on how devout they are is something you just don’t need. Just be proud you’ve found the music in you, and move on.

Isn’t all religious belief a form of acting?

For reasons I can’t quite fathom, but which probably have to do with the fact that I was at one point listed (I didn’t bother renewing when production in Texas essentially dried up) in the Texas Film Commission Production Directory, I’ve been added to the email list of Brad Wilson Acting. This means that I have intermittently been getting newsletters plugging his “Faith Based Acting” seminars.

Not that I couldn’t find this out for myself if I cared to look into it (but as this would involve attending the seminar, my motivation is nil), but I find myself puzzled as to what Wilson, a former personal assistant to Robert Duvall who now produces microbudget direct-to-DVD Christian movies, exactly means by “faith based” acting. It seems Christians can attach the label “faith based” to nearly anything now, thereby making it better.

Here’s the pitch:

Does your art collide with your faith?
Does your talent challenge your calling?

Hollywood film producer, Brad Wilson, wants to help you find direction from the Bible that has not only encouraged him to continue his work in film and televition, but to see it as a calling vs a job in his popular workshop, Faith Based Acting For the Camera.

As a Christian, Brad has felt the need to help guide others in the “business” by not only using invaluable techniques he has learned for acting for the camera, but most of all using ones faith and belief in God as the ultimate guidance. Brad will share many of his own experiences and obstacles he himself has faced in a business that does not generally put God first.

Well, you know, like any business (including religion) Hollywood puts money first. They have to, since they spend so goddamn much of it filling the multiplexes with shite like Transformers and G.I. Joe. It takes millions of publicity dollars to convince you that you haven’t just been robbed of two hours of your life you’ll never get back, after all. “You know,” executives have been known to say in meetings over brandy and sneakily imported Havanas, “once audiences leave the theater after this headache-inducing abortion is over, those who aren’t 6 years old and under or mentally retarded are going to converge on our offices with torches and heavy weapons. So we really need to make it seem like it’s some kind of event going on here, or we’re well and truly fucked!”

But that aside, I’m curious to know how acting work could conflict with one’s religious faith. If you’re offered a role you find objectionable, or that requires you to do something objectionable (like sex or nudity), in a script you find offensive, simply don’t audition for those projects.

I suppose many actors might find themselves under pressure to take on roles in films that offend them personally, simply for fear that “the big break” may not come again any time soon. But the good news there is that independent filmmaking is more accessible than ever, particularly in the vital niche market of Christian film. An actor or aspiring filmmaker can build a body of work and allow their talents to be seen in projects they have greater control over artistically, whether or not it’s possible (and it typically isn’t for indie movies) for those projects to actually get released. Most freshman actors and directors understand their DIY indie work is just about building their experience and putting together a nice reel. Get that work into the right hands, and offers for higher-profile work could well be in the offing. The old cliché of the “casting couch” is a relic of the old-school studio system, when there was, for all intents and purposes, no such thing as independent filmmaking. These days, it’s not necessary for a budding young ingénue to shag some lard-assed producer in the back of a limo to get cast in something. I mean, she can if she wants, I suppose, but why?

So, yes, I’m not sure that any Christian actors are really at risk of compromising their values if they don’t want to. And maybe, these classes are just Wilson’s way to meet a pool of wide-eyed young talent to cast in his own DVD cheapies. That’s all fine. As for “faith based acting,” though, well, I must say, I’d think Christians would be naturals as actors without the extra coaching. After all, a lifetime of talking to invisible beings is a master class in acting all its own, eh?

Year One: Not Quite What I Expected

Alert: Spoilers are included in this article.

I have been working at my job pretty close to nonstop for several weeks and needed a break and some levity. I sometimes enjoy mindless humor and was interested in seeing either Land of the Lost or Year One. Since nobody I know is interested in seeing Year One, I decided that if I was going to see a film alone, that would be the one to see. So, I went to the local Alamo Drafthouse where someone else could cook dinner for a change and I could have a drink and watch something that required no thought. (I feel compelled to mention I parked right next to Matt D’s car, but I had no paper with me and was unable to leave a note. I didn’t ever see Matt, but just to say, “Hey Matt! I saw your car last night!”)

While I can’t say Year One actually prompted too much thought, and it was about what I expected from Jack Black and Harold Ramis, it was not what I expected overall. I thought it was going to be a confused film about an ancient man in the ancient world with a thin plot about whatever. What it was, was a statement about religion and belief (or more to the point, unbelief and the reasons for unbelief). Since I had not the slightest clue I would be writing about this film, I made no notes. Any quotes I offer are purely paraphrases to the best of my memory. And most likely I’ll have to visit IMDb to get the characters’ names.

The theme of the film was very reminiscent of Life of Brian: A man, confused as being god’s messenger, stumbles through a series of loosely written Bible tales, crossing paths with Old Testament legends and giving them a bit of a reinterpretation from an outsider’s perspective.

In the film, the main character Zed is a tribe member in a group of hunter gatherers who live in an unspecified forest region. He is no hunter. He is no gatherer. But he is charming and funny and sometimes lucky (but mostly unlucky with a lucky twist). He has a way of making lemonade from life’s lemons. His friend, Oh, may represent “Oh” in the “Eureka” sense. Of the two “Oh” is the one most likely to see the reality of what is actually happening or likely to happen; but what he can’t predict are the random twists of fate that consistently turn Zed’s harebrained plans into successes, even while things appear to get worse and worse for them.

Zed gets tired of the status quo and decides to shake things up. He can’t be the best “male” in this society where brawn and physical prowess are that standards of quality, but he can be the smartest guy–just not with his current level of intellect. So, Zed decides to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. In the film, the tree is not about good and evil, but simply knowledge. Certainly the fruit looks magical enough, eerily florescent golden apple-like somethings. And Zed eats it despite the warnings of his friend, Oh, that it’s “forbidden.” Oh can’t answer Zed’s questions about why the fruit is forbidden–it’s simply forbidden. And you don’t eat forbidden things. That’s not good enough for Zed. Clue number one that there were going be to some things examined: Someone was immediately challenging the idea that “forbidding” things without any understanding of why, is not justified.

Zed believes the fruit endows him with super-knowledge, but in reality there is nothing to demonstrate he is any more intelligent than he was before he ate it. He asks Oh to test him and he pretty well fails in the capacity to wisely answer any question Oh throws at him. “Where does the sun go at night?” Zed replies with “Pass. Next question.”

Zed is found out and meets with the village shaman who tries to explain “forbidden,” unsuccessfully, as well. But in the end Zed is banished and Oh ends up going with him. Oh explains there is little point in walking anywhere, because they’ll only end up at the edge of the world–it’s “general knowledge.” When they come to the edge of a large canyon where they can see far out over the horizon, Oh realizes Zed was right to question the assumption about the world’s edge.

They first meet Caine and Abel, which is somewhat uneventful except that it is the guys’ first time seeing a “farmer” and someone who works in animal husbandry–forms of subsistence unfamiliar to them. And this is part of the film as well: As Zed travels, he begins to learn that there are many different views on topics thought to be “general knowledge.” Caine is a bit bi-polar and ends up killing Abel and “inviting” Zed and Oh to dinner with the family–including Adam and Lilith, a lesbian–who represents yet another new view Zed has never encountered.

Caine takes Zed and Oh away, explaining that when Abel is found, they will be suspected as the killers, since they are “two drifters.” They get their first ride on a cart and see, for the first time, a wheel. Caine is struck in the head by lightening, which leaves his famous “mark.” But rather than be disappointed, Caine is excited: “Wow! What are the odds of that?! It didn’t leave a mark, did it?”

Later Zed and Oh encounter “slavery” when they are sold by Caine as slaves. They run into some of the old villagers who have been taken as slaves as well, and Zed explains he has been chosen by god–referring to god as “He.” One of the women from the village asks “Why do you assume god is a ‘he’?” to which Zed gives Oh a condescending “do-you-believe-this-chick?” eye roll and says, “What do you even say to that!”

Zed, in a cage-cart traveling to the home of his new masters, asserts “Nobody can own a human being–except, I guess, for the guy who bought us.” This brings up the question of moral rights versus the reality of a situation and reminded me of the scene in Life of Brian where one of the men rallies for the “right” of men to bear children.

The slave train is raided by Romans, and Zed and Oh escape and run up a sand dune. Later they decide to try to find the slaves, who are on their way to Sodom, and free them, since some of them were from their old tribe. They lose the caravan, and wander the desert, where Abraham comes into the story. It isn’t hard to make Abraham look like a nut job without deviating all that much from the actual Bible stories. We first meet him as he’s building a sacrificial pyre with son, Isaac. “Where is the sheep, dad?” Abraham replies, “The Lord will provide.”

As Abraham begins to bind Isaac’s wrists, Isaac says in a nervous voice, “What is this, dad? Is this some kind of magic trick?” When Abraham picks him up to put him atop the woodpile, Isaac begins to panic and says, “Is this about me not cleaning my tent last Thursday?! Because I’m really sorry!” Abraham insists god has commanded him to kill Isaac, to which Isaac rightly replies, “If god told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that?!”

The irony here is that we so often see the foolishness of what Isaac asserts–”would you jump off a bridge if so-and-so told you to?” But we, as a Christian culture, think nothing of idolizing a historic figure who would do far worse. Isaac’s example of jumping off a bridge is nothing compared to what Abraham is about to do. Obviously Abraham is mad, and, since he would murder his own son, it’s a safe bet he also would jump off a bridge for god.

Abraham raises a large knife and says some sacrificin’ words, and just then we hear “STOP!” It’s Zed and Oh. “What are you doing? Are you going to kill that kid?!”

Abraham looks embarrassed, half-heartedly tries to hide the knife, and says, “No. This is my son. We were just playing a game. It’s called burney-burney, knifey knifey.” Then he plucks up more courage and asserts god told him to sacrifice the boy, asking Zed, “Do you speak for the Lord?” To which Zed lights up and answers sincerely that he has been chosen by god, and that yes, he does speak for the Lord. Abraham accepts Zed’s claim and praises god for sending a messenger to stay his hand and save Isaac. He invites them to dinner where he regales them with stories of the wicked twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and warns them that god has promised to destroy the cities. They are cities where people eat, drink, engage in all manner of debauchery, and where the streets are filled with whores. “Which city has the most whores?” Zed asks, “Uh, just so we know which one to avoid the most.”

After a good feast and a lot of wine drinking, Abraham takes Zed and Oh and Isaac to a ridge where he announces that “all this land” has been given to him by god. Zed and Oh are impressed, but the cynical Isaac adds, as an aside to the strangers, “Yeah, but god forgot to tell anybody else about it–so, we’re constantly having to fight somebody over it.”

Abraham then announces that as a pact with god, he plans to circumcise all the males in his group, starting with himself, Isaac, Zed and Oh. “Circumcise? What is that?” Abraham describes what he intends, to which Zed and Oh are rightly appalled. But Zed, always rolling with the punches, says, “You know, Abe. We all had a lot to eat and drink tonight. And I’m sure this circumcision thing seems like a really cool idea to you right now. But why don’t we sleep on it? In the morning, you know, we can always cut it off then, if you still think that’s what you want to do…”

Zed and Oh escape, but hear poor Isaac screaming as they run off over the desert hills. Later Isaac catches up to them and leads them to Sodom if they promise to buy him drinks when they get there. Isaac explains that he and his buddies are always sneaking off to Sodom, loosely portrayed as an ancient Las Vegas, for a good time. Isaac abandons them at the gates and they are immediately arrested for disturbing the peace and find themselves facing a scary punishment at the hands of a particularly large, intimidating, and sadistic guard whom they continually encounter throughout the film.

They are saved by Caine, who has become a member of the Sodom guard and identifies them as his “brothers.” They also become members of the guard. And one day, Zed fails to kneel when the procession of a beautiful princess passes. She notices this and admires it. Her step-father is the king of Sodom. Sodom is suffering from a drought that the high priest, advisor, and king are all concerned with. And in order to end the drought they are sacrificing virgins left and right, a “waste of perfectly good virgins!” according to Zed and Oh. Zed and Oh try to understand the sacrifice, and they ask about it. “So, it hasn’t rained in a long time. And you need it to rain. So, you’re burning women who have never had sex to death? How does that work, exactly?” To this, one bystander complains, “Look, I’m just here to enjoy the sacrifice with my family.”

In Sodom there is a temple with a “Holy of Holies,” which, in the Bible is actually part of the Hebrew temple. But like the temple in the Bible, anyone who enters the Holy of Holies will die. Zed’s first introduction to the room is when the princess explains that she knew when he did not kneel that he was a man chosen by god who could enter the temple, without dying, and plead for an end to the drought–and that god will certainly hear him. Oh’s first encounter is from the high priest who tells him that anyone, but the high priest, will die upon entering the room.

Oh: “Wow, so, you kinda hafta wonder whether the guys who finished building it died then, right? I mean, did they get like a grace-period second to get out of there or did they just die instantly as soon as they laid the last brick?”

The priest in perfect apologetic style answers, as though he knows, that “There was a four-second grace period.”

Oh: “So, does it just kill people or does it kill animals as well? Like, if a fly gets in, would it just drop dead on the floor the second it enters?”

The priest confirms that it kills even animals.

Oh: “So, there are just dead bugs all over the floor in there?”

No, the priest explains, because they are “vaporized.” They are vaporized, apparently by a “deadly vapory vapor thing that turns them to vapor.”

It reminded me so much of my discussions with many theists.

Young Oh ends up in the temple hiding from the oppressive and gay high priest. Zed ends up in there at the prompting of the princess who feeds into his belief that he is special and chosen, and who promises to help free his friends if he will help her end the drought.

Zed takes it very seriously. Finally, the moment for which he was chosen has arrived–to meet and speak to god. He did not die upon entering the room. Clearly, he is the chosen one. Until he sees Oh hiding behind a pillar. Zed reasons that Oh is not dead because he is a friend of the chosen one. Oh, alternately, suggests he is alive because, perhaps there is actually “nothing” in the temple. And a serious, and loud, argument ensues.

They are caught and sentenced to be stoned to death. But Zed saves them when it dawns on him to ask the king, who is present at the stoning, a clever question: “Why didn’t I die in the Holy of Holies? Because I’m the chosen one!” He manages to whip up the crowd so that the king is advised not to kill Zed and Oh, but they are sentenced to hard labor instead–which is portrayed unmistakeably as a scene right out of the classic film, Ten Commandments. Oh stomps mud in a pit, ala Charlton Heston, with another man who explains he’s not a slave, but a “volunteer.” This was reminiscent of the apologetic that slavery was so much nicer back in the day. Yes, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to sign up!

Volunteer: “The mud is really great for your skin. Look how great my skin is. Ask me why I have such great skin. Go on, ask me.”

Oh (in a tired, uninterested voice): “Why do you have such great skin?”

Volunteer: “The mud!”

Oh: “Yeah. I knew you were going to say that.”

The volunteer then stretches and adds, “Man, gotta love bein’ outside!”

The king then decides to sacrifice the princess and her two handmaids (fellow villagers of Zed’s and Oh’s), and Zed tries to save them. In a series of mishaps, he brings down a huge scaffolding, and Oh sees his opportunity, “A sign! It’s a sign!” In the mayhem that follows, eventually none of the women is thrust into the fire (a firey bull’s head), but the high priest ends up falling in covered in oil. A huge fireball results. The crowd is stunned and there is a moment of shock that Zed takes advantage of: “How about that by the high priest?! What a sacrifice he just made! Let’s hear it for the high priest!” And he begins to clap. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the idea of “sacrifice” and what it meant to be a high priest in days of yore when your “sacrifice” consisted of someone else’s life! But tossing yourself into the fire? Now that would be a real sacrifice.

I can’t promise everyone would like this movie. If you can’t stomach Jack Black, don’t even try. I can’t claim it’s deep or offers anything you probably haven’t already considered. But I do think it offers a second look at some events that seem too familiar to too many. Christians who idolize Abraham for trying to kill his son should take note of what they might think, or have thought, if they had encountered this act as Zed did. Would they intervene or let this take place? “Well, I mean, if god said ‘do it,
‘ I guess, go for it…?”

I have a feeling the film won’t play long. But there is nothing visual about it that won’t translate perfectly well to small screen. You won’t lose anything by waiting for DVD release if you think you might like it. And, if you’re up for a lighthearted view of religious history, you might find it entertaining.

Gamers, get ready for Left Behind 2

Alert Non-Prophets listener “Rasputin” sent me this valuable information:

Greetings Unprophets,

After your recent lengthy hiatus I realized I just can’t get enough and with a lack of other listening material I decided to take a stroll through the archives.

…During the March 24, 2007 episode there was a story about the stock price of Left Behind Games hitting eighteen cents and someone questioned parenthetically “Weren’t they going to put out a sequel?”

To assuage my rampant curiosity on this issue I decided to make an offering to the Great Lord Google and what do I find?

http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Left-Behind-Games-Inc-Inspired-Media-Entertainment-1001802.html

Not only did they make a sequel but they released it yesterday making this insanely topical. Clearly my yearnings for the dulcet rantings of Jeff Dee were divinely inspired.

According to this press release the first game is “known as the most widely distributed Christian PC game in history.” I think that’s kind of like cruising for chicks in the maternity ward because you know they put out. It may be technically true but is missing quite a bit of the big picture. And by quite a bit I mean all.

I never did get around to playing the first Left Behind game, because the reviews were so awful it sounded painful to play even for camp value. This time will probably be no different, but I look forward to hearing whether they managed to remain utterly tone-deaf when we see how many flaws that were pointed out remain unfixed.

A bit of artistic justice

Lurking on some of my usual movie sites today, I noticed a fun fact that has gone unnoticed by the godless blogosphere. I still haven’t seen Bill Maher’s Religulous; I understand the ACA had a little group movie night when it opened here, which I missed due to being out of town. No one saw fit to blog a review of it here, though, so perhaps it just didn’t make much of an impression at all.

Still, it’s gotten pretty good notices in Free Inquiry and other sources I keep up with, and so I’m looking forward to the DVD.

But here’s the fun fact. Religulous had a minute fraction of the hype Expelled got, and never played on more than half the screens of Ben Stein’s disasterpiece. And yet, Religulous almost doubled Expelled‘s box office take.

So go Bill. Sometimes, the good guys win one. Now all he has to do is jettison his ill-considered anti-vaccination issues, and he’ll really earn his skeptic stripes.

Prince Caspian is Anvilicious

  • Anvilicious, adj:
    In media, the state of conveying a particular message so unsubtly that they may as well etch it onto an anvil and drop it on your head.

Okay, so I’m late in seeing this movie. Ginny and I don’t get out enough.

I always liked the Narnia books, even after I knew that Aslan represented Jesus. As someone who wasn’t terribly absorbed in Christian mythology around age 10, the parallel wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time, but it seemed undeniable once someone pointed it out to me. Still, I continue to feel that Lewis was a much better fiction author than he was an apologist.

Prince Caspian was never my favorite of the series; in fact it would be fair to say that it’s roughly tied with The Horse and His Boy as my least favorite. IMHO the best of the series, in order, are books 4 (The Silver Chair), 6 (Narnia’s “genesis” story, which further explores the concept of parallel universes), and 3 (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which had some cool random adventurey stuff).

While Caspian wasn’t that great, I don’t remember it being particularly full of religious overtones as compared with many of the other books. I have a theory about this. Some of his own statements notwithstanding, it seems to me that Lewis wrote the first book as a straight-up Christian story. The lion getting killed for another character’s sins and then coming back to life is just way too obvious to overlook. On the other hand, once he had settled into a mythos, Lewis got more comfortable with writing a good story whose characters take on their own life and don’t necessarily have to correspond with Biblical figures.

But that’s not the way the director of the latest movie series saw it. The first movie emphasized the religious overtones, and since there’s not enough of that in the second book, by God he added some.

The white witch, who represents the devil, makes an all new appearance, tempting the main characters with personal glory and stuff. This never happened in the book, given that the witch had been dead for 200 years at this point.

Then at the end of the movie Aslan parts the red sea. I mean, he creates a wall of water to kill the Egyptian — I mean Telmarine soldiers. In the process, the water morphs a giant “river god,” resembling a huge old man with a beard. I couldn’t resist whispering to my wife “Oh finally, God’s here.” I didn’t remember this from the book, but Wikipedia mentions in passing that it’s in there. It seems to get an awful lot more attention in the movie though; it sounds like in the book the river god only shows up to ask Aslan for a favor. In the movie, he wins the fight for them. And seriously, he looks suspiciously like “the” God rather than “a” god.

I don’t mind religious themes in movies, for the most part, as long as it’s a good movie. This particular movie is not a case where less is more, however. Caspian has a lot going for it: pretty good characters and actors, first rate CG effects, some entertaining writing in places. But the movie dragged on way too long for me anyway — and the sad part is, most of the religious anvils are part of the unnecessary dead weight.

I’m convinced that the book is too short to make a faithful movie about. I can even admire some of the creative decisions taken by the team. At least the first half of the book has no action to speak of, since it is a dwarf retelling the backstory for the benefit of the four kids. I actually liked the way the first scene focused on Caspian escaping from guards, and the rest of the first half continually switched perspectives between Caspian and the kids, making all the events concurrent with each other.

But you could have lopped off Tilda Swinton’s scenes reprising the witch, and not only not lost anything, but actually made a lot more sense.

I’m not a direct-translation purist. I’m happy to let movie directors add or chop scenes as they need to make the transition between media formats go smoothly. I’m less than happy about the directors’ effort to shoehorn their own religious messages in there because they don’t trust CS Lewis to beat you over the head with it enough.

M. Night’s new movie is about ID?

That’s the general impression that this reviewer got, although PZ Myers doesn’t precisely agree.

It’s a sad thing about M. Night Shyamalan. I really, really enjoyed both 6th Sense and Unbreakable. Then Signs came out, and Jeff Dee — whose tastes I mostly respect a lot — told me he hated it. He was disgusted by the premise that even horrible tragedies have a purpose, even if the purpose is really obscure and convoluted.

I defended Night as much as I could manage. “No no,” I insisted, “you’ve missed the point of the movie. He wasn’t ADVOCATING this point of view; he was setting up an obviously horrible scenario to show what’s WRONG with the idea.” I tried to make the case that Signs was really pulling a sly reversal, just like Frailty, a movie that I watched just because Jeff recommended it, and which Jeff is convinced that the real message of the movie is a reductio ad absurdum showing that the Old Testament makes no sense as a moral guide.

Anyway, I’m finally convinced that I was completely wrong about Night. He really believes that mystical mumbo-jumbo, and the message of the movie is being played straight.

Catholics so scared of Golden Compass, they’re suppressing their own praise

According to IMDb today:

Without explanation, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has retracted on its website a positive review of The Golden Compass that appeared in Catholic newspapers last week. The review had appeared to counterbalance claims by the Catholic League, the nation’s largest Catholic lay group, that it served as an introduction to atheism expounded in the trilogy of books on which the movie is based. The League had urged a boycott of the film. In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Jim Lackey general news editor of the Catholic News Service, run by the bishops’ conference, acknowledged that he was told to remove the review from the CNS website. “It’s hard for me to categorize whether or not it was a surprise,” he told the newspaper. Meanwhile, the church’s Raleigh, NC diocese on Tuesday warned pastors in a letter about the possible ramifications of the film. “The concern is that once a child gets ‘hooked’ on the film or the books, then the next film could resort to the true atheistic nature of the books,” the letter said.

And we all know how bad it would be for business if children around the country had an epiphany from reading the books that there’s no invisible magic man in the sky and the church is simply a self-perpetuating authoritarian money machine. Plus, if the kids turn atheist and stop coming to mass and catechism and all the other little rituals we have for them, there won’t be so many of them around to molest! Gasp! Martin! You mean mean man! What a cheap shot! Yeah, well, it wouldn’t be so easy if they hadn’t done it.

Now I know I didn’t care for the movie much, but it also happens to be true that the grounds on which the Catholic League (has the odious Bill Donohue even seen it?) is condemning it are wholly bogus, and part of me wishes people would go see it just to realize that all the hysteria in the press is much ado about nothing. Then perhaps folks will be less likely in future to say “How high?” whenever Donohue says “Jump!” But what I find most amusingly ironic about this whole Catholic war on the movie is that they’re basically walking right into it and validating the themes of Pullman’s original books: that the Church is repressive and even punitive towards ideas which challenge their long-held dogmas, and that humanity’s real growth lies not in those dogmas but in embracing free thought and fighting authoritarian rulers and institutions that keep people cowed and submissive. I’ve heard Pullman’s religious critics attack his humanism as somehow “elitist.” But what could be more elitist than a bunch of men in expensive robes and pointy hats claiming to be the emissaries of a deity and telling everyone what to think and how to live thereby?

Anyway, it appears the movie is doing better business in Europe (where theistic demagogues generally hold less sway than here), adding an additional $51 million to its lackluster $26 million domestic take. In Pullman’s home of England alone, the movie had a per-screen average of $29,129, compared to $7,308 in the U.S. New Line foolishly overspent on the movie, as studios are wont to do with “event” pictures, but the overseas gross could help put the movie in the black.

Reviewing The Golden Compass

I’ll start here by noting that this review, while it avoids outright spoilers for either book or movie, has some things in it that will mean more if you’ve read the book rather than not. Since not reading the book would make you a silly person, go correct that lapse in your cultural education at your earliest convenience. Now, onward…

Chris Weitz’s film of Philip Pullman’s brilliant fantasy adventure The Golden Compass is a respectable adaptation in a lot of ways, but at the same time exhibits a lot of the problems inherent in trying to compress the plot of a complex novel into a two-hour running time. If I give the book a 5 on a 5 scale (and I do), then the movie is hovering around a 2½-3. Truth be told, Weitz did a better job than I was expecting. He’s clearly a huge fan of the book and strives to be as faithful to it as he can within the limitations he has to work under. I respect him for trying to do his best by Pullman and the book’s fans.

But what this means cinematically is that we get a movie whose story feels rushed, with Weitz doing everything he can to touch on each major plot point in rapid succession. The script just sails along, at such a pace that very little suspense is actually built. We establish the movie’s universe, its heroine, and her quest — and then we’re off to the races. Lyra, though extremely well played by a great little newcomer named Dakota Blue Richards (why is Dakota the moniker of choice for preteen actresses?), never really feels like she goes through a character arc in the normal sense of the term. She learns to use the aliethiometer, decoding its arcane symbols with almost supernatural speed, just so the script can get the story going.

Thinking about it, it isn’t that the movie is too rapidly paced, so much as that it doesn’t really have anything you could call “pacing.” Its script just flings you from one scene to the next — boom, boom, boom — without much in the way of the dramatic peaks and valleys stories normally have to draw an audience in and give them a stake in the outcome.

Part of me wonders just how much studio interference Weitz had to endure from New Line. If The Lord of the Rings taught New Line anything, it’s that doing epic fantasy that already has a built-in audience faithfully, and putting the project in the hands of a dedicated filmmaker equals a major box office love-happening. On the other hand, with $180 million at stake (each LOTR movie cost right around $100m by comparison), New Line clearly wasn’t willing to give Weitz a Peter Jackson level of carte blanche. Three editors are credited, leaving me to wonder just how often the infamous moviemaking mantra “We’ll fix it in post” reared its little fuzzy head during dailies. I’m not saying that a three-hour running time would have been for the best, but allowing for, say, 140 minutes would have given the movie a little space to breathe, and bring some moments back from the book that the script either excised or truncated in order to stay focused on Lyra’s quest alone.

The cast is quite excellent. As Mrs. Coulter, Nicole Kidman is ideal. I like her as an actress anyway, though for this role I wasn’t sure. Physically she’s different from the novel, where she’s a brunette, for one thing (when I read the book, I was picturing more someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones). But Kidman swans through the part looking about as glamorous as it’s possible for a woman to look short of being sculpted out of ivory, and she conveys the character’s seductive, fatal attraction to a tee. I also dug Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Craig, after proving himself the second best James Bond of all time (flame shields on), is turning into an actor I’ll probably want to see no matter what he’s in — wait, scratch that, I still have no desire to see The Invasion. Still, I like him, but of course, the script doesn’t give him enough to do.

Sadly, other supporting characters are given short shrift, especially Serafina Pekkala, who’s barely in the movie enough to matter. (The script’s treatment of the witches is an exemplar of how awkwardly the movie translates ideas from the book. In the movie, we really don’t get much of an understanding of who the witches are, why they’re involved in this, or anything. They’re just there, presumably, because they were in the book.) LOTR veteran Ian McKellan lends his voice to Iorek Byrnison, the disgraced bear prince who becomes Lyra’s guardian. And though the movie succeeds in building their relationship (it’s really the only relationship in the movie with any substance), the script doesn’t give Iorek the sense of tragic pathos he has in the novel. Another LOTR alum, Christopher Lee, is prominently billed (how many octogenarian actors are getting as much work as he is?), but he has exactly one line and about ten seconds of screen time. Sam Elliott made for a very good Lee Scorsby, though I was picturing Billy Bob Thornton when I read the book. Elliott is better suited, I think.

As for the movie’s whitewashing of the books’ theological themes, well, this was interesting. The Magisterium is played less as a church than as a generic totalitarian governing body. But Weitz manages to keep in enough material about freethought (represented by Asriel and his scientific pursuits) versus dogma that I think fans of the book won’t feel like the movie betrays the book’s themes too drastically. How exactly any proposed movies of books two and three, though, will manage to slip around the whole “kill God” thing is a mystery to me. Weitz has said that he was willing to compromise certain things about this movie to fit them into more of an acceptable Hollywood blockbuster framework, so that its hoped-for box office success would mean he could take more chances with the sequels. I hope that wish comes true, because I predict that audience word of mouth on this movie will hover around “oh, it was okay, I guess,” and TGC won’t be looking at LOTR-level returns.

Among fans of the book, the biggest letdown is the movie’s decision to end a little early, so that the movie can have a happy ending rather than the somewhat tragic one the book has. I think this is a choice that will backfire, not just because it’s a mistake to think audiences only want all happy endings all the time, but because the happy ending we get here is so…well…bland. To have ended the movie the way the book ends (and I know I’m assuming you’ve read the book here) would have given the movie the one thing it utterly lacks: an edge, a willingness to take risks, to challenge its audience both intellectually and emotionally. You know, the very qualities the book is popular for. As it stands, the movie, while it stays true to the book’s words as best it can, lacks its mind and its heart. And it lacks its truth. If only Weitz had had his own aliethiometer.

So yeah, I guess it’s 2½. I don’t want it to be an Eragon-level megabomb, because it’s a worthier effort than that. I’d like it to at least make its money back, so that perhaps Weitz gets to make The Subtle Knife after all and take the risks he says he wants to take. So I’ll say TGC is worth a matinee. Fantasy cinema that at least tries ought to get our support, if only so we get a great one now and again.