Don’t skip The Golden Compass because it’s anti-religious. Skip it because it sucks.
Can God’s divine hand crush the hopes of multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbusters?
Holy box-office poison!
This past weekend, parents and children steered clear of The Golden Compass, winter’s highest-profile Hollywood film. Some fingered a poor marketing strategy, others simply blamed a bad movie. Many, however, cited warnings from Catholic and evangelical leaders, who advised that The Golden Compass was riddled with subtle anti-religious vehemence, as the reason why audiences rejected the film.
Earlier this fall, the Catholic League was quick to discredit Compass sight-unseen, releasing a booklet, “The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked,” which cautioned that the seemingly innocent PG-13 fantasy film might tempt children viewers to read the series of books by author Philip Pullman, and thusly be exposed to his atheist agenda. According to the Catholic League, the English author’s “twin goals are to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity. To kids.” In other words, he’s the Michael Jackson of atheists.
Did it work? Did the extreme-right smear stick?
Compass, a $180 million blockbuster (though director Chris Weitz hinted that the price tag ballooned to somewhere near $250 million) tanked at the box office. Its $26 million weekend, a tidy sum but by no means enough to appease Hollywood number-crunchers, likely will ensure that its sequels never see the dark of a movie theater. Critics also panned the film (it scored 43 percent on RottenTomatoes.com and 51 percent on Metacritic.com).
God’s never been able to kill a film in the past. Consider Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, which were huge moneymakers despite their alleged anti-Christian themes. These, however, were films made for adult audiences. But even the Harry Potter franchise succeeded in spite of anti-Potter campaigns by religious extremists, so you can’t altogether blame negative word of mouth.
That said, Compass is different. In the books, a trilogy called “His Dark Materials,” the main character kills God. The books detail the exploits of Lyra Belacqua, a young girl with a magical golden compass that reveals ultimate truth. In the film, the authority government—called “the Majesterium”; in the books called “the Church”—has confiscated all but Lyra’s compass, which she uses to locate the Majesterium’s northern headquarters, where kidnapped children are hidden and brainwashed.
Compass is PG-13, but it isn’t your run-of-the-mill Quidditch match. Hence, the right-wing backlash. Of course, their protest is completely misguided. Compass is a harmless, two-hour fantasy adventure, heavy on exposition, effects and bad dialogue, and light on anti-Christ. That’s right: The Golden Compass is a quarter-million-dollar disaster.
In two hours, the filmmakers manage to squeeze in a dozen principal characters, three shootouts, a polar-bear fight and even a “Luke, I am your father” confession. Sure, there are serviceable transitions in between and amusing introductions, but it’s really all too much. $250 million couldn’t save Compass, and I don’t think God could have, either.
And as for the backlash: Not once is the Lord, or God’s terrestrial authority, assaulted or taken in vain. Though the Catholic League worried that children would see Compass and instantly be compelled to ask for the novels for Christmas, the latter scenario is quite unlikely. A refund? Perhaps. More half-baked storytelling? Doubtful.
Which is a shame, as in the end kids probably are better off reading the novels. That is, unless you’re a foreigner: Compass was the No. 1 film in the box office in 25 international countries this past weekend, raking in twice its domestic take.
Either foreigners can’t get enough garbage American cinema, or that religious-right mud indeed does stick.