The Golden Compass (2007)

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The Golden Compass
Dir. Chris Weitz
Premiered November 27, 2007

As mentioned in my review of Stardust, The Lord of the Rings created a very top-heavy media environment based on adaptations and remakes of recognizable properties– an environment that is today showing its cracks as Hollywood struggles to find more such properties, and equally struggles to balance the needs of the adaptation process with the expectations of an increasingly demanding fan base. I also mentioned that The Lord of the Rings briefly gave the impression that fantasy as a genre was suddenly profitable in Hollywood, which it wasn’t.

The Golden Compass is emblematic of both of those issues, having been greenlit all the way back in February 2002, just two months after the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by the same studio that had made that film, New Line Cinema. It then went through a long, troubled development, with writer/director Chris Weitz repeatedly being sent to the drawing board over concerns that his adapted screenplay wasn’t marketable in the United States.

The reason for that is probably the best-known thing about this movie. The Golden Compass was adapted from part of a book series called His Dark Materials, written in the 1990s by British author Philip Pullman, whose main villain, the Magisterium, is allegedly a stand-in for religion in general. For this reason, Weitz was ordered to tone down the atheistic message for fear of generating controversy. Of course, that happened anyway: almost every Christian group in America, Protestant or Catholic, spoke out against the film, and the country being significantly more religious in 2007 than today, this bad buzz supposedly turned The Golden Compass into a failure.

I seriously doubt this theory, as not only was His Dark Materials pretty obscure in the US to begin with; the film just plainly sucks. Watching it, I immediately understood what was wrong, and it just kept going.

The Golden Compass is set in a parallel world to our own, roughly analogous to a futurized version of the 1930s, in which a mysterious cosmic element known only as “dust” causes human souls to manifest in the form of intelligent spirit animals known as daemons. Because the dust has yet to settle on children, their daemons have the power to change form before deciding on a final adult incarnation, but there are machinations afoot to prevent the dust from taking hold altogether.

I will try to explain this inasmuch as the film explains anything at all: the Magisterium, our stand-in for the Catholic Church, wants to suppress the study or application of dust by restricting scientific research and using technology to sever the psychic link between children and their daemons. In service of this, children all over the world are being abducted by bandits known as Gobblers and sent to a research facility/prison in the Arctic.

The leading researcher into dust is Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is sent away from Jordan College due to his views and vows to study dust on his own, possibly uncovering the secret of parallel worlds. Soon after, Asriel’s orphan niece Lyra Belaqua (Dakota Blue Richards) and her daemon Pantalaimon (Freddie Highmore) are sent into the care of the mysterious and glamorous Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Before leaving the college, however, one of Asriel’s sympathetic compatriots gives Lyra the last surviving Golden Compass, a cosmic Magic 8-Ball powered by the dust; though the knowledge required to use it is long lost, Lyra takes to it immediately, the film implying that she is the subject of a “witches’ prophecy.” Yep, another YA chosen-one.

After being paraded around what appears to be this world’s version of London, Lyra escapes from Coulter, who is leading the Gobblers, and is rescued by a band of Gyptians (think Gypsies crossed with Vikings) who themselves have lost a child and are on a mission to the Arctic to find him. On the way, Lyra meets pilot Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), whose services are needed to reach their destination, as well as Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), the exiled former king of a race of talking warrior polar bears who seeks to recapture his throne from Ragnar Sturlusson (Ian McShane), who is himself seeking a human-style daemon. She also runs in with Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), one of a race of witches who briefly implies she is Lyra’s mother, but this is confusing in itself for reasons I won’t spoil.

If you’re noticing a lot of high-profile actors in here, it’s not for nothing. Jim Carter, Kathy Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christopher Lee, and Derek Jacobi additionally show up in minor-to-medium roles, and this gets at the first problem with the film: everything is super-rushed. I didn’t read the first book, but I’m guessing it was way longer; every new character is introduced suddenly, yet with a sense of majesty and revelation suggesting a lot of buildup that never happened. Weitz allegedly did as much as he could to stay loyal to the book, but that’s more of a liability than an asset with a runtime under two hours.

The second problem is that I’m fairly certain the book is a lot darker and more violent than would strictly be allowed for a movie aimed at kids– i.e. it has blood. The film by contrast is an achievement in bloodless carnage, straining credibility by omitting any sign of the precious red fluid even in scenes that demand it, such as when one character’s jaw is torn off.

The third and perhaps largest problem is that it’s incomplete, with a ton of characters and plot threads being introduced without even the hint of resolution. After doing some research, I discovered that not only is The Golden Compass the first of a series, it omits the somewhat fatalistic final three chapters of the book it’s based on (Northern Lights) in the hope of giving audiences a happier ending, and presumably leaving the rest for sequels that would never come. The resulting product gives the impression that New Line was totally confident that the film would do well enough launch a franchise, yet also terrified that the book’s atheistic themes would kill its success. Ultimately, both expectations proved wrong.

Sign This Was Made in 2007
Meta Edition! Catholic and Protestant groups were united in opposition to this film. Today, anti-Catholic sentiment is making a fashionable comeback in America, and the former Moral Majority would probably delight in the movie’s anti-clericalism.

How Did It Do?
At $372.2 million worldwide, The Golden Compass was the thirteenth highest-grossing picture of 2007. That should not be considered a failure, and yet it is. First, it had a mindblowing $180 million budget, equivalent to those of the first two Lord of the Rings movies combined, and thus barely broke even. Second, it made a pitiful $70 million the United States– virtually the only country where it wasn’t a hit, but also the home country of New Line, severely undermining the business world’s already-waning confidence in the company.

Nevertheless, taking the business receipts at face value would suggest that the only problem was that American audiences were presumably too dumb and puritanical to appreciate the movie. Unfortunately, critics tell a different story: The Golden Compass currently holds an anemic 43% rating on RottenTomatoes, with the words “rushed,” “underdeveloped,” and “convoluted” being thrown around a lot. This time, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone got the last laugh, declaring that it merely sucked irrespective of any theological controversy around it, that Nicole Kidman was a better villain in Margot at the Wedding, and that she and Daniel Craig were just as “good” here as in The Invasion. Bless you, Travers.

Shortly after The Golden Compass’ release, Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson, producer Saul Zaentz, and fifteen cast members all filed suit against New Line for accounting practices intended to conceal profits and thus avoid paying them residuals. You read that correctly: New Line was alleging that The Lord of the Rings had never made money, nor had any of its major franchises. This is not unheard of in Hollywood; New Line’s parent company Warner Brothers still maintains that Goodfellas has never turned a profit, and the guys behind This Is Spinal Tap are suing StudioCanal for the same (if they win, it would likely end the practice, which is still somehow legal).

The embarrassment over this movie was the last straw: New Line’s founders resigned and the studio was shut down, henceforth existing only as an alternative marketing label for Warner Bros. To recap: The Golden Compass brought down the studio that created it and its entire genre. If that isn’t a failure, I don’t know what is.

Next Time: Sweeney Todd

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The Invasion (2007)

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The Invasion
Dir. Oliver HirschbiegelPremiered August 17, 2007

If you went back to 1955 and told people that Jack Finney’s pulp novel The Body Snatchers would end up having the legacy it did, they probably wouldn’t believe it. But it’s not hard in retrospect to see why it did: pod people, the idea of being replaced by a perfectly soulless facsimile, is both universally scary and incredibly versatile.

The 1956 film adaptation Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel, is easily my favorite, as it uses that versatility to its fullest; it’s probably about Communism, but by no means does it have to be. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, by contrast, is uncomfortably dated; while it has fun contrasting the original’s small-town setting with big-city alienation, its antipathy towards psychoanalysis is too reminiscent of Scientology for my tastes.

In 1993, a newly respectable Abel Ferrara remade the film again, this time as a more character-focused story with environmental themes. It was critically praised, but barely got a limited release, and few people have seen it even now. I would have watched it before this review, but Netflix blew me off. Also, in 2005, former teen idol Shaun Cassidy produced a short-lived television update of the story called Invasion, hoping unsuccessfully to capitalize on the popularity of Lost.

2007’s The Invasion, meanwhile, does try to seize on a paranoia of the day, but one you might not expect, and may not even have remembered: the then-widespread fear of global pandemics.

I should’ve seen this coming. Anthrax and SARS were big deals in their time. Two television series, 24 and Heroes, featured season-long plots revolving around weaponized diseases. And at the end of 2005, my aunt, a retired scientist, visited us from Florida in the sincere belief that I would likely be dead soon from the H1N1 virus commonly known as bird flu, an allegedly imminent pandemic expected to kill between a third and half of the global population within the following two years. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the same speed and mortality rate as the Black Death, so if bird flu didn’t kill me, the ensuing antisemitic pogroms probably would.

This is more or less how The Invasion is framed– at first. The film opens with a space shuttle disintegrating upon re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere (the film uses actual footage from the Columbia disaster, which had occurred just four years earlier. Classy.). Among the wreckage, CDC director Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam) finds and is infected with clusters of a seemingly alien virus that alters the brain during REM sleep (for which read: any sleep whatsoever) and causes an absence of emotion, as well as a psychic desire to spread the disease, which Tucker does by using the CDC to administer “vaccines” ostensibly against the contagion itself.

Meanwhile, Kaufman’s ex-wife Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman) is a Washington, DC psychiatrist whose patients have begun to complain that their friends and family are not themselves, before they mysteriously abandon her services altogether. During a Halloween party, Carol finds a sample of the virus and gives it to her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig). As Ben and his associate Dr. Steven Galeano (Jeffrey Wright) perform research, Carol discovers that her son, now being held by Tucker, is immune to the disease, possibly as a result of having suffered from encephalitis earlier in life. On this evidence, Carol has to escape a quarantined Washington to rescue her son, while Ben and Steven try to find a cure.

From the very beginning, the trademark of pod people is that they take away people’s emotions, so it’s important for the main cast to have a good emotional range for maximum contrast. The casting of the famously stoic Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig suggested a level of self-awareness that the film sadly doesn’t possess.

Midway through production, The Invasion’s screenplay was hastily re-written by the Wachowskis and re-shot by V for Vendetta director James McTeigue, and as you might expect, the finished product is overloaded with plot holes. At one point, Carol is infected, and instructs her son to give her a shot of adrenaline if she falls asleep, raising the question of why she doesn’t just inject herself preemptively. Sometimes the pod people act in a fairly normal manner, while other times they act like mindless zombies. In this iteration, dogs, much like with earthquakes and thunderstorms, can instinctively tell when pod people are nearby and start attacking them, so pod people are killing dogs all over the place until halfway through, when that aspect is dropped entirely. At one point, a pod person tries to get Carol’s door open, but walks away when she locks the door. Why he didn’t just break through the window is unclear, except that they wanted the movie to have a jump scare. Similarly, the pod people can spread the virus by vomiting a phlegmy substance onto others, yet they mostly choose more diplomatic methods that people can easily avoid, or elect to do nothing.

The production is barely more competent than the screenplay. As it is famously difficult to acquire filming permits in the central part of America’s capital city, many films and TV shows set there are shot in nearby Baltimore. This movie is perhaps the most obvious example of this, with skyscrapers aplenty. Even more bizarrely, the climax, actually set in Baltimore, is filmed in Los Angeles, with landmarks such as the AON Tower in full view.

The film is also frenetically edited, with scenes of people planning to do some action interspersed with scenes of that action taking place. One fairly mundane scene from the third act is shown at the very beginning of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis-style, for no discernible reason. But more than anything else, no review of this film would be complete without discussing its ending. Spoiler alert for those who care, but it needs to be addressed:

In The Invasion, being a pod person is curable.

Not only is it curable, but in the epilogue it is shown to be cured very easily and almost instantly, as the virus, much like the aliens in War of the Worlds, has no defense against Earth’s natural ecosystem, and by extent its medicine. The whole conceit of the original story is that the invasion is irreversible– that’s what makes it scary; the world of the film, and by extent of you the reader/viewer, is being taken away forever. The Invasion not only gives us an ostensibly crowd-pleasing happy ending, it takes away any consequences; by the end, a few people have died, but otherwise everything is exactly as it was before. The film somehow sees this as a demonstration that humanity comes with a price; in fact it’s the opposite.

We’re left with a film that, in attempting to address current events, feels like a throwback to Hollywood’s 1990s Dark Age, with a classic premise reused as an excuse for a malformed, cliché-ridden thriller with bad special effects that is never willing to embrace the darkness at its center. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has stayed remarkably ripe for fun, thrilling, and thoughtful reinterpretations, but The Invasion is, and probably always will be, an outstanding blemish on that record.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Carol turns on the radio one morning, during a news report of an exceptionally deadly suicide bombing in Iraq (which in 2007 is saying something). It seems like it’s going to come back into play later, but it doesn’t, except when the pod people briefly cause world peace, wrongly conflating human emotion with desire as the source of war.

Additional Notes
In a recreation of a famous early scene from the 1978 film, a woman runs onto the road shouting “they’re coming!” In the ’78 version, the person doing that was Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 original and thus the scene is a cute little tribute. Here, it’s nobody, in tribute to nothing. Just another instance of the movie missing the point entirely.

How Did It Do?
The Invasion grossed $40.2 million against an $80 million budget, earned a dreadful 19% rating on RottenTomatoes, and to date was the last iteration of the Body Snatchers mythos, at least until Paramount gets the idea to reinvent it as the soulless launchpad for a cinematic-universe that will never happen. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, who was inexplicably hired by producer Joel Silver on the strength of his critically acclaimed Hitler’s Bunker movie Downfall, never attempted a major blockbuster again, but continued making movies, most notably the appallingly-received Diana.

Next Time: Superbad