Thanks to New Line’s roll-out of 10 minutes of footage at Cannes Film Festival, those who follow marketing strategies are already drawing parallels between the forthcoming “His Dark Materials” trilogy and “The Lord of the Rings.” The trailer for “The Golden Compass,” the first installment of this cult saga, encourages that sort of thinking — and it takes a good 30 seconds before there’s any clue that it’s anything but a “Lord of the Rings” clone.
“The Golden Compass” takes place in a world parallel to our own (later installments of the series travel back and forth between this and other worlds). So while some things look the same, there are many crucial differences: people travel in both carriages and zeppelins, witches fly without brooms, and yet England remains thoroughly modern and Edwardian. The biggest difference — the existence of “dæmons” — is barely glimpsed in the trailer. Which is for the best, because while reading the book, you only slowly come to realize the relationship between a person and his or her dæmon, and that dawning of understanding can be a great pleasure. Accordingly, in the trailer, we see brief shots of people lined up with animals, as if to do battle; but it’s only the third of these shots that gives away what those “animals” really could be — when we see an ermine morph into a cat to hiss at a leopard (see “Armored Polar Bears, Stolen Souls: A Guide To ’His Dark Materials’ “ ).
(Check out “The Golden Compass” trailer right here.)
This is also a clue that “The Golden Compass” is not going to be presented as a children’s film, because New Line just as easily could have shown a dæmon interacting with his or her human and made it seem cutesy. But the only talking animals here are Panserbjørnes — and they’re on the attack. We first meet Iorek Byrnison, an armored polar bear, as he’s breaking through the wall of a store in an Arctic port town. Before we can see the full havoc he’s causing (though we have an idea, since people are stepping back in fear and those with guns have them at the ready), Sam Elliott (as Lee Scoresby) appears to be calming the bear down, asking him, “You joining us on this turkey shoot?” But it’s actually Lyra (played by Dakota Blue Richards), the heroine of our tale, who’s already accomplished that task, which Iorek acknowledges when he says, “I have a contract with the child.” Her telling expression lets us know that she’s a girl to be reckoned with — even if she is only 12. Also to be reckoned with, obviously, is Iorek — we next see him whacking the jaw off of another bear in a fight that Lyra has instigated.
What we don’t know from the trailer is that Lyra’s as good at keeping the peace as she is at starting battles (a few of which are referred to visually). But we do learn that she’s a “chosen one” of sorts — or at least that fact is alluded to. “Are you familiar with the prophecies of the witches?” Nicole Kidman (as Mrs. Coulter) is asked. “You think she is that child?” she responds. At the beginning of the trailer, Lyra is given a device called an alethiometer, and told, “You are meant to have it. Keep the alethiometer to yourself. It is of the upmost importance — to yourself, to all of us, and perhaps to all of creation.” Pretty heavy stuff for a 12 year old, and the story is only going to get heavier. “War is coming,” Lyra is warned.
The symbol-reading alethiometer — the so-called Golden Compass — helps Lyra seek the truth, but she’s not the only one on a quest. “I propose to discover a world much like our own in a parallel universe,” Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) tells the scholars at London’s Jordan College (Oxford in our world). This is a step up from the presentation he gives in the beginning of the book, which Lyra spies on and first learns of his mission. There, he didn’t reveal his true motives, only that he wanted to study a phenomenon called Dust. Here, he lays it out more plainly. “That is heresy!” a colleague charges. “That is the truth,” he responds. Still, Lord Asriel may not be giving up the full truth that easily — because his plans are far from innocent, as Lyra discovers too late.
Once Lyra starts using the alethiometer and discovering the hidden truths of her world, she has embarked on a desperate quest to put things right — and to save other children from a horrible fate. “I need to go north and fight,” she says. Soon we see her running around the Bolvanger medical facility, lining up other children as allies and rebelling against the Tartar guards, while witches fly overhead shooting arrows. Lyra is able to save many of the children, but there’s one she can’t help once Asriel opens up a window between the two worlds.
The trailer, of course, doesn’t offer any clues as to what happens next. But then the film might not either, since the book itself ends on a cliffhanger, to be continued in the next volume of the series, “The Subtle Knife.” So perhaps this movie will be like “Lord of the Rings” after all — with the end of the first installment finding the main characters separated and trekking off to explore new territory. “You’ve no idea what is at stake,” one character is warned in “The Golden Compass.” But we do have an idea — it’s the fate of the world, once again.
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Golden Compass.”
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