Let me start by saying that I defended this movie against cries that it is inherently evil. And though I am sorely disappointed in the movie on several accounts (read on), I will still defend it against calls for mass boycotts. My argument was and is that it would be nice for youth groups to stop showing movies like The Sixth Sense and following the Reel to Real discussion guide (no offense to the fine folks at R2R). Instead, a youth group could watch this movie and discuss the deeper philosophical issues. It would not only challenge one's faith (there is a disturbing lack of challenge in today's Christianity - we ignore verses that disturb us and pretend as if we don't have doubts) but also require students to think more about the underlying themes in movies.
And The Golden Compass certainly does challenge the mindset of "I'll just let the Church tell me what to think." But that's all it does. It takes aim at Christianity (particularly Catholicism) and accuses the Church of trying to control the thoughts of its followers through violence and oppression, preventing free thought from taking root. And yes, the Church has historically done this. One only need study the history of the Protestant Reformation to see this. And yes, people within Christianity today are still trying to oppress free thought. The evolution "debate"/panties-in-a-twist provides enough evidence of this (I, for one, am tired of being thought of as un-Christian for my cosmological views). But certainly this is not all of Christianity. My friends and I hold many differing beliefs and embrace these differences as learning opportunities. One of my best friends is a very true agnostic. I have great conversations with atheists. And I certainly am not trying to oppress anyone's right to free thought.
The author, Phillip Pullman, accuses CS Lewis of being "evil" in The Chronicles of Narnia. Because, as we all know, self-sacrifice (a'la Aslan) is evil. Instead, Pullman includes a fight between bears competing for a kingdom in what can only be described as the most Machiavelli-Nietzsche inspired scene in movie history. This is, after all, a world where only the strong willed and free thinkers can survive (it is, of course, Nietzsche's great irony that the Church which he hates so much is such a perfect example of this).
Everybody knows that CS Lewis, as a professor of Medieval literature, was a fan of allegory. Accordingly, the Narnia series is written in such a style. The self-sacrifice of Aslan has quite a few meanings, most notably the death and resurrection of Jesus, but can also be compared to the United Kingdom's role in World War II (the novel is set during the time, and it could be argued that Aslan/UK died to save the world from the forces of the White Witch/Germany). That's the wonderful thing about allegory - it has many, many different levels at which it can be explored. Pullman's series is a very thinly-veiled allegory. At the end of the movie, you find yourself saying, "We get it. The Church is bad." All of this is with an allegedly-softened anti-religious message. Not to mention the disturbing speech on how the Church needs to be violently destroyed.
I am not here to get into a discussion about whether or not God exists, or even whether or not we can prove God's existence. But let me say this: The past abuses of the Church, and religions in general, is not a valid argument against the existence of a divine being. Any rational believer will readily admit (and apologize) for the past abuses committed in the name of God. The Crusades, the Inquisition, al Qaeda, the Aryan Nation, witch hunts, and religious oppression (to name a very small fraction of the iniquities of the religious) are evidence that man is corrupt. Not that God cannot exist. Using this same logic, we could argue that democracy and caring for the poor are horrible things that should not be supported. All we need to do is to look at the French Revolution and Soviet Communism.
An oddity in this film is that the ultimate purpose of the Church's actions and attempts to keep people from thinking for themselves is to keep them from sinning (an odd take on Original Sin is presented). The ultimate message, then, is that there is no sin. Morality, then, is completely relativet. Even taking God out of a consideration on ethics, this is a bad idea. While neither Kant nor John Stuart Mill got it right (they really need each other), they came a lot closer to a sustainable code of ethics than Nietzsche ever did.
Philosophical differences aside, the movie was tawdry and predictable. Out side of the scenes featuring the college, the movie is a display of why computers will eventually replace decent filming locations (think Star Wars prequels on a smaller scale). Many of the twists were obvious (but then again, maybe I just watch too many movies). I was actually very disappointed in most of the performances. James Bon...erm, Daniel Craig did a decent job, but his role is comparatively small. I found myself annoyed by Nicole Kidman and her monkey (yes, Nicole Kidman and a monkey - by all accounts, this should be a good thing, but it wasn't). Ian McKellan's bear character was over-done - not by much, but enough to make the character annoying. And will somebody stop casting Christopher Lee as the wise, corrupt bad guy? Yes, he's good at it. But we already know that. Let's put him in a different role where his true talent can shine through.
I really hope that this is just a bad movie adaption. Maybe the books have more depth. I'm going to read them - I want to know how you can make killing God accessible to children, I really do. But if the movie's a faithful adaption, I'm setting myself up for disappointment.