‘Golden Compass’ looks good, utterly confusing


“The Golden Compass” opened amid controversy. It’s the first installment of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” a trilogy that protests God and organized religion. The film was denounced by The Catholic League, and critics began getting notices from several religious groups even weeks before the film was released warning of its dark and sinister plot.

And while some of the movie is intriguing, lots of it is simply confusing. The thrust of the tale centers on the Magisterium, a powerful organization dedicated to maintaining moral control of society. One young, parent-less girl, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), is a pawn in the highly visual plot. In this world, people have animal demons that are part of their souls and stay by their side forever. They talk to the person, give advice, and each feels the other’s pain.

When Lyra begins snooping around Jordan College, where she lives, she hides in a closet after hearing someone come into the room. She watches a man put a powder into a decanter of alcohol. When he leaves her uncle Asriel (Daniel Craig) enters and starts to drink from the bottle. Lyra jumps out to caution him. He heeds her warning and then is off to discussions with colleagues about such things as “dust,” which links universes together and is an ongoing concern to many characters throughout the story.

Lyra can be quite unruly, so it’s decided she will go with Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) in her unusual flying plane to her luxurious house. Lyra is sad about leaving her friends, especially her best friend, Roger (Ben Walker). At first, Lyra feels pampered in the home and nurtured by Mrs. Coulter. But soon she gets the feeling that all is not right with the woman, and when Coulter’s animal attacks Lyra’s, Lyra makes her escape.

From this point on, the story becomes muddled, with subplots featuring characters both live and computer-generated. The entire movie switches streams when cowboy-looking Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) swaggers into sight and offers Lyra some advice. He tells her about Lorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), a huge polar bear who is lacking in self-esteem and needs a good reason to feel proud again. Lyra and her new-found friends end up in a fight for their lives against evil. Adding to the danger, Lyra possesses a golden compass that answers questions if you know how to use it. Everyone wants this instrument and will do anything to get it.

I have not read the books, but I never encountered any overly anti-religious messages in the film. However, the look of the film and the imaginative worlds it brings to life are quite appealing. That, warned a friend who has read all the books, might be a worry if kids are drawn to them. She feels they are certainly not good for kids. Still, after watching “The Golden Compass,” I don’t think this is a film parents should be concerned about. Children will hardly understand what’s going on anyway, but they’ll probably enjoy the visuals and the animals. But beware: There are several intense scenes in which the animals fight each other.

Part of the problem with this movie involves the performances and direction. Two heavyweights - Kidman and Craig - are totally wasted. Craig (“Casino Royale”) has very little screen time, and although Kidman (“The Invasion”) looks as lovely as an angel on a cloud, her performance is shallow and lacks emotion.

Sam Elliott kept me from drifting off - he was totally a fish-out-of-water in this movie, but I enjoyed him, as I did Richards. This is her first movie and she actually carried the entire film all by herself.

Writer/director Chris Weitz (“About A Boy”) seems to be directing a football game in which no one knows where the ball is, rather than helming a complex movie. It feels like the director threw too many elements in, believing audience members would catch on quickly. Guess what - I didn’t.

“The Golden Compass” is playing at AMC La Jolla 12.