Fantasy and fatalism

Golden Compass' quest, Blood's power struggle hold attention throughout
December 20, 2007

Directed by Chris Weitz
Starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards.
NewLine Cinema
One hour, 53 minutes. Rated PG-13

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor.
Ghoulardi Film Company
Two hours, 38 minutes. Rated R

Even before The Golden Compass opened, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, via pulpit and Internet, demanded that Roman Catholics boycott the film.

While heat radiated against Compass, however, There Will Be Blood slipped in, unpoxed by its stance against organized religion, and evangelism in particular. Indeed, a viewer would have to know that The Golden Compass is based on a book by an avowed atheist to divine any anti-religion in the film, whereas the central theme of Blood pits God against Mammon in a no-win struggle for America's principles.

Both films command attention from the moment they begin, and each -- through excellent screenplays, acting, music and production values -- holds viewers' attention seductively to the end. For Blood, the end comes after 2 ½ hours, even though scriptwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia) loosely based his film on barely half of Oil! by Upton Sinclair.

For Compass, the end promises that the story will be continued; the film covers just Northern Lights, the first book in the trilogy, His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. Pullman, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Chris Weitz, folds in symbols like a baker coddling batter.

The plot, set in a time after God is dead and with another acting demonically in God's name, involves a quest for Dust, an elementary particle that affects people's spiritual natures. The main character, Lyra, played strongly by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, is a courageous girl, recognizable from life if not much literature.

Children in Lyra's alternative world are accompanied by daemons, changeling creatures that express their companions' feelings and help them understand others'. However, children and their daemons are being stolen and separated, which opens a power vacuum for the kidnappers. After Lyra's friend disappears, she and her daemon initiate a search that takes her to the home of a schemer (Nicole Kidman), to the icy shed housing the stolen children and to the Northern kingdom of armored bears.

Different views of evil
In The Golden Compass, Evil appears in the body of the Magisterium, a conservative cabal comprising control freaks and drones (the same name the Roman Catholic church applies to its authoritative teaching component). However, Good is all around, manifest in seekers of truth.

In There Will Be Blood, Evil appears in every man, leaving no room for good. In adapting Oil!, Anderson shifted Sinclair's Socialist agenda, not only placing politics second, although still represented by the Big Oil Company, but also subordinating the novel's central theme of father vs. son. For first place, Anderson magnified one continuing contest in America's progress: country evangelist versus city industrialist.

There Will Be Blood -- the title forebodes like a stratocumulus cloud -- starts in stony silence: For 15 minutes, Daniel Plainview, played magnetically and magnificently by Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), struggles alone to mine precious metals in 1898. Time shifts to 1911, when Plainview assumes parentage of an orphan, and then to 1918, when father and son camp in California to prospect for oil.

There he meets his chief adversary: Eli Sunday, founder of the Church of the Third Revelation. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) plays the preacher perfectly as part innocent, part conniving. Immediately, cunningly, Sunday and Plainview vie for the loyalty of the men who dredge the oil out of the rocks.

When Plainview wants to run his pipeline across the only bit of property he has not bought up, the landowner demands that the oilman be washed in the blood of the lamb in exchange for that lease. Plainview's baptism is electric with Sunday's menace as the interloper is forced to repeat, "I am a sinner."

The scene's complement comes in 1927. Plainview, rich and alone, is touched by Sunday, now a radio-evangelist, for a loan. In response, Plainview demands that Sunday repeat, "I am a false prophet, and God is a superstition."

There is nothing subtle about these humiliating confrontations for control. Nothing suggests that religion is any less opportunistic than capitalism. Control is the issue in both films and to both novelists.

Philip Pullman has played the devil's advocate, if you will, regarding his atheism, but he has made equally provocative proclamations about storytelling. Upon accepting the prestigious Carnegie medal for The Golden Compass, Pullman, whose editor calls him the greatest storyteller alive today, said: "We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts. We need books, time and silence. ‘Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever."

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