Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Golden Compass (2007)

I saw The Golden Compass this afternoon, and though some of my friends and correspondents hated the movie, I rather liked it.

I think I was in a good position to like it: I read the book and liked it, but not so recently that I could remember vast numbers of details that got left out or changed. Also, I thought the film was impressive visually. For instance, the docks and the dockyard neighborhood in Trollesund was just perfect. Things like that make movies for me, if there is quality in the other elements. Last, I really liked the remote Arctic setting of much of the book, and some of that was done very effectively in the movie.

I'm not particularly interested in arguing about the virtues and vices of GC, but I will remark on the fact that this was another example of Hollywood steampunk; steampunk being a literary/movie SF/fantasy genre where the present is one side or the other of the year 1900, and the futuristic elements are supplied by technology that is "super-science" by the standards of the 1890s or the 1900s. There are huge engines and electricity and advanced weaponry that Jules Verne could have believed in or made up, and given the huge size of his output, probably did. Oh, yes, there are plenty of brass scientific instruments, golden compasses and whatnot. And airships.

The popularity of this genre (which includes on the movie side the failed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the much more enjoyable Wild, Wild West) is kind of curious. Another example of the backward-looking nature of the "speculative" imagination which currently refuses to speculate?

I'm tempted to say that this scaredy-cat looking at a Paleo-Future that's already long been superceded is a delayed reaction to World War I, an acknowledgment that modern culture went off the rails then. Who could argue with that? But of course that's probably too-clever baloney. The real World War II with its real nuclear bombing and fire bombing before that and its vast death camps didn't scare SF writers off, from utopian or dystopian speculation, or more realistic future construction. It spurred them on, gave them a sense of mission.

I think it's probably unfair to categorize the Golden Compass the book as steampunk, but the movie is certainly an excellent example of it.

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