What could happen if you brew a mixture of fantasy, Oxbridge philosophy, the English Residential College, Gnosticism, New Age and talking animals doing theology in a movie?
Answer: a headache.
Pope Benedict XVI doesn't rail against movies as he respects the autonomy of the arts. But the movie has generated controversy since some Catholics say that the movie alludes to organized religion (read as Roman Catholicism) and how it "controls" minds. After all who would be cheeky enough to call the villainous organization in the movie as "Magisterium"? What organizations on heaven and earth use the word "Magisterium" in its official documents?
Answers: The Roman Catholic Church and the Evolution Church of Stephen Jay Gould!
Nonetheless putting some theology in a fantasy isn't new. CS Lewis did it in "Narnia" but he took care to couch it as purely metaphors and allegories. Thus the atheist could tune out of "Narnia" and just relish the talking animals and Turkish Delight. The devout may consider "Narnia" as the Fifth Gospel according to Jack,complete with altars and sacraments! Whichever the case we have entertainment.
The problem in "Golden Compass" is that it is impossible to tune out. Thus the migraine!
Oxford and Cambridge despite the gothic spires and the English Perpendicular have always been dens of heresy whether the Monarch was a die hard Catholic or die hard Protestant or even a non-believer (a few Masters have tasted the bonfire!). "Compass" starts out with scenes of life in an English Residential College. Pinoy Harry Potter fans may be able relate but for most if not all Pinoys"college"means a place where one attends classes. In the original sense "college" is both a place where one lives and attends classes. Thus we have to attend "high table" in gowns etc. I know this since I was a collegian once.
And in college anything can be discussed from tame subjects to sex and other forms of heresy. In fact this is where academic freedom really started.
But in "Compass" we have the Magisterium whose members seem to be dressed as Jesuits in Roman Collars! (In a recent remake of "Jesus Christ Superstar",Caiphas and Annas and the rest of the Sanhendrin were dressed up like Jesuits but then again THAT was a movie about Christ!) No wonder the Church objected!
The movie seems to be set in Victorian England with a sci-fi feel. In fact the city scenes were vaguely reminiscent of Naboo in "Star Wars" but more sinister. Lyra played by Dakota Blue Richards was an orphaned kid who lived in a college with her guardian being James Bond ooooops Lord Asriel (apparently one of the dons) played by Daniel Craig.
Dakota Richards got wind of a sinister Magisterium plot to control worlds and the cool and icy villain (dressed in white) Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman) manages to convince Richards to go North. In the end she gets to snoop around a forbidden room and finds out that kids are being abducted and their daemons (this New Agey way of representing souls or consciousness and represented as furry animals!) zapped in some sort of fume hood just like what we have in the lab! And the lab looks like one of those sci fi research stations. Of course this is another New Agey way of representing "loss of innocence".
In the meantime Craig gets abducted by Cossack looking soldiers and Richards meets a Yankee(Sam Elliot) who has a blimp or two. She goes on some sort of quest and we see her on a sailing ship with gypsy like people. We have mechanical spy flies (I've seen this in Voltes V!) and one was trapped in a tin.
Up North she gets to team up with Byrnisson the Polar Bear (voiced by Ian McKellen). This ice bear is the one that shows all the noble character a person could have. But it was so overkill and cliche!
In the end we see all the abducted kids free and we have a battle scene on the ice strangely reminiscent of Pierce Brosnan's last Bond movie. We get air support in the struggle provided not by the Eagles but by witches.
And a witch gives the expected cliche that Richards is a sort of messiah! Oh God!
Nonetheless New Line Cinema had provided the effects which are superb.
But the metaphysics may give us a sneeze due to"dust". BTW poor Lyra had cut her metaphysics tutes just to go out and play with the kids, and got a lecturing from one of the dons. Now this dust links the various parallel worlds and is a threat to the Magisterium.
Now Philip Pullman who wrote the book the movie was based on is an atheist. Perhaps this was the cause of the religous controversy. But the movie could just be Narnia for the heretics and should be able to stand on its merits. But dosing the movie with Oxbridgian philosophy did give many a migraine.
And what about that compass? That compass if read right could tell the truth. Now there are symbols there that only the initated knows and Richards apparently made the cut. That's the gnostic in the movie. But the scientist in me tells me that the only truth a compass can tell you is where magnetic north is!
Of course we know something in the achievements of Homo sapiens that can whack the Magisterium, New Agers and the like and even the Catholic Church (in the end Galileo did whack the Church's magisterium and now the church steers clear of it).
We call that Science!