The Golden Compass Went South- But Why?
New Line faced a disaster last weekend at the box office, with The Golden Compass only making about 25million on the US box office. As a comparison, The first Chronicles of Narnia film opened to 65mil two years ago, The Fellowship of the Ring opened to 47mil, and even last monthâ€™s Bee Movie opened with 38mil. For a movie that cost about 180mil to make (and that excludes the 50 or so it took to market and distribute), 25million suddenly feels rather pathetic, especially when New Line and independent speculators were expecting almost double that. So what went wrong? Below is a few possibilities.
Those Damn(ing) Christians
Itâ€™s no secret that a certain Catholic League went out of their way to stop people from watching the film. For those unaware of the filmâ€™s plot, the antagonists are known as the Magisterium, who control the world that the film is set in, and are hatching a dastardly scheme to not just control everyone in their world, but also everyone in every other dimension too. There are similarities between the Magisterium and the Catholic Church around the time of the counter-reformation. And while the movie does not draw any direct links between our Catholic Church, the Catholic League feels that the film will prompt kids to read the books, which are more overtly anti-religious. To be honest, itâ€™s a pretty laughable line of reasoning. Surely a true Catholic would not feel the need to have to bully people into not watching a fantasy movie, using negativity to spread their word. Itâ€™s ironic that they are using a dogmatic approach to counter a portrayal of religion as dogmatic.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Leagueâ€™s endeavours seemed to have been mildly successful. While their protests may have actually generated more interest for an adult film, when it comes to kids flicks, Catholic parents seemed to have erred on the side of caution. Movie forums are littered with tales of kids and teens who were banned from watching the film by their parents. Itâ€™s a scary notion that such a group can have such an affect on the public, and this success will certainly give the Catholic League the confidence to denounce plenty of other films too in an aim to keep their flock from straying.
In America, the fantasy film was never truly bankable. There are a few exceptions, such as the Lord of the Rings films, or the Narnia film, but they were based on highly popular books. Variety claim that the Golden Compass book wasnâ€™t that popular in the US in the first place. Last year saw Eragon fail to impress the box office (opening with a similar figure to The Golden Compass), and earlier this year Stardust, despite its impressive cast, only managed to make 38 million in total, in the US. The Seeker was another non-starter, opening to 3million. It seems as if the fantasy movie has been exhausted, and people are getting tired of the same old adventure (not a good omen for the forthcoming The Spiderwick Chronicles). Variety have said that fantasy usually fares better outside of the US, so perhaps The Golden Compass may not be a global disaster.
Currently, The Golden Compass has a rating of 43% in Rotten Tomatoes, 51% in Metacritic, and a User Rating of 6.7 in IMDB. These are all pretty pathetic ratings for such a high-concept film. Yet what power does a critic have over a fantasy movie? Bee Movie has similar ratings and that has already passed 120million in the US (The Golden Compass will barely pass 80), and Spiderman 3 wasnâ€™t well received at all, and that made 336million in the US alone. Iâ€™m sure glowing reviews would have helped, but mediocre ones would hardly stop a kid.
Nicole Kidman is box-office poison at the moment. Earlier this year she starred in The Invasion, a sci-fi horror film that was a box-office disaster worldwide. It also happened to start Daniel Craig, both of which lead the cast of The Golden Compass. Perhaps people were reminded of the Invasion when they saw the line-up. Then again, Elijah Wood was barely known until after Lord of the Rings.
There seems to be a bit of a lull between Thanksgiving and Christmas time in the US. The weekend before last saw only one new release, Awake, which didnâ€™t fare very well. This time last year saw Apocalypto leading the box office with a mere 15 million. Is the weekend just a little too early to cash in on the Christmas excitement? Sure, Narnia opened that week two years ago, but that seems to be the exception.
While all of the factors above probably contributed in some way to dampen the success of The Golden Compass, I personally think that director Chris Weitz is quite responsible for this filmâ€™s misfire. Weitz has directed About A Boy and American Pie before this, hardly films that are of an epic nature. In fact, Weitzâ€™s utter lack of visual panache or ability to generate excitement through a sense of adventure is disappointingly evident throughout the entire movie. The film uses the old â€œhero is about to be killed but at the last second is saved by an allyâ€ device four times in a row, making the action scenes rather bland. Characters appear and disappear in the movie having little valid reason to be there (while the witches are important in the books, they acted as a mere deus ex machina in the film). And the endless introduction of characters ends up shifting focus away from the central character, that of Lyra. It feels as if Weitz liked the book so much that he was afraid to take a risk and simply chop off a few characters and scenes that confused the narrative.
The Golden Compass is possibly one of the best fantasies ever written, taking a little girlâ€™s journey and eventually taking her into a war between all of heaven and hell, like a cross between Lord of the Rings and Paradise Lost, with a dash of sci-fi for flavour. But Weitz seems lost, unable to highlight the unique aspects of this fantasy, so much so that he cast two of fantasyâ€™s most recognisable actors, Ian McKellan (Lord Of the Rings) as the polar bear Ioruk, and Christopher Lee (Lord of the Rings, the new Star Wars trilogy) as a member of the Magistratum. This lack of vision is also evident in the filmâ€™s conclusion. The book ends with Lyra braving a leap into a parallel universe, after suffering a huge betrayal. The film ends with her off to rescue a character that remains incidental in the movie. If Weitz had an inkling of adventure, he would have ended this film by alluding to this world, our world. For example, ending with a shot of our world, and showing a rift emerge, would have instantly aroused the audienceâ€™s attention. It would have shown a link between the fantasy we have just watched and our world, combining the two, making the film more real and closer, and instilling anticipation in the audience to discover what happens next. The cliff-hanger that The Golden Compass actually ends on is rather dull.
This ties into the marketing of the film. With Weitz unable to highlight the distinct qualities of the film, how are New Line able to market the film as something different. Sure, there are witches, duelling polar bears, and humans with animals for souls, but the trailers presented the film as another typical adventure into an unknown land with the aid of some magical device. It does little to bring out the conspiratorial element of the film, or the huge scale of the characterâ€™s actions. How could the audience not be unimpressed?
A Trilogy Without Sequels?
Thereâ€™s plenty of debate at the moment as to what will happen with the His Dark Materials series. There is a chance the film wonâ€™t come close to making back its production costs, and if so, there would be no sense in making Part 2 and Part 3. Which would be a shame, because the second and third novels are far more mind-blowing and expansive than the first.
All hope is not lost, though, and the rest of the world has to see the film. It appears that The Golden Compass has already made 55million outside of the US, a figure much higher than Eragon, which went on to make 174 million outside of the US.
A bigger concern is if the sequels are greenlit, will Weitz continue to direct them?