Movie Review: Green Lantern (2011)
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Tim Robbins ~ Writers: Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg ~ Director: Martin Campbell
The Low-Down: DC’s latest attempt at a superhero blockbuster, Green Lantern should have been a giddy mix of colourful action and space adventure. Trouble is, nobody seems to have told that to the filmmakers – what we end up with is a deeply mediocre, flatly executed comic-book romp with only a few brief flickers of the lurid saga it should have been.
What’s it About?: Hotshot test-pilot pilot Hal Jordan may be talented, but he’s also an irresponsible risk-taker who ends up derailing a potential big contract for his employers, Ferris Air. But, just as his life seems to be going wrong, an encounter with a dying alien results in him being inducted into the Green Lantern Corps, a group of interstellar policemen who battle against unimaginable forces of evil – one of which is now on its way to Earth…
The Story: Oh dear. Poor DC can’t seem to get a break outside the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies. They’ve been stuck way behind Marvel for years, and even now that Warners is finally getting their act together with some serious franchise-starting action… it’s still not quite happening. They’ve bet a fair old whack of money on Green Lantern (with an estimated price tag of around $200 million, plus the marketing costs on top of that), and I’m sure they can’t be happy to have the first of 2011′s batch of superhero blockbusters that really does appear to have a “Kick Me” sign attached to its back. The $50 million opening weekend (plus a 69% drop-off in its second week) means it’s a long way from being the ideal franchise opener that DC and Warner Bros obviously wanted – and while it’d be lovely to report that this is all terribly unfair, and that Green Lantern is actually a fun adventure that’s catching a small superhero backlash almost purely by accident… I’d be lying through my teeth if I did.
It doesn’t quite deserve some of the vitriol that’s been thrown at it (and is certainly a long way from being as dreadful as the Fantastic Four movies), while there’s also the fact that not every superhero movie has to be The Dark Knight, meaning that there’s room in the multiplexes for a lighter, more colourful piece of superhero action. However, it’s hard to recall the last time I saw a movie quite so flat – a blockbuster that simply seems to go through the motions, giving us a sketchy version of the Hero’s Journey and a handful of nicely executed effects shots without ever cohering together into a genuinely thrilling ride.
There’s a pervasive sense of ‘that’ll do’ to much of the picture, alongside the feeling that they’re not doing a fantastic job of getting the reported $200 million budget all up onscreen (with the film looking a little creaky outside the big CG setpieces). One of the original comic book’s strengths is the extensive mythology (which has been upgraded a lot in the last few years by main GL writer Geoff Johns), but the film doesn’t approach this with anything approaching the confidence of Thor. Instead, this is a film that’s desperate to be taken seriously but simply slaps chunks of the mythology onscreen in the hope that it’ll wow us, sandwiching them together with lots of dreary expository dialogue (“I believe you have the power to overcome fear!”). There’s precious little sense of us learning about the universe with Hal Jordan or getting more involved with his character that way – instead, the piecemeal screenplay is just a collection of things that happen, leading up to Hal discovering his inner awesomeness (and, as a footnote, that it’s better to be nice than an arrogant asshat).
There’s a whole heap of exciting stories to be told in the Green Lantern universe, but the film seems to be terrified to tell any of them for fear of busting the budget. It doesn’t help that by cranking up audience expectations of the footage depicting the Green Lantern Corps’ home planet of Oa (which has basically been the highlight of the publicity campaign, while the far more integral central relationship between Hal and ex-girlfriend Carol Ferris is barely featured in the trailers at all) the film ended up shooting itself in the foot. Yes, the Oa scenes do feature some spectacular moments and memorable characters (most notably the Geoffrey Rush-voiced Tomar-Re, who’s the highlight of the entire movie), and it is the point where the film does finally hit the right note of lurid SF action – but it’s all over within ten minutes, and the rest of the film feels like a let-down. After the colour and variety of the Green Lantern Corp’s home planet, the last thing we want is to be chucked back onto Earth for lots of scenes of Hal Jordan experiencing Olympian levels of angst and more lumpen villainy from the deeply unimpressive adversary Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who comes over as more of a slightly annoying distraction than an intimidating threat in his own right (while the film’s ‘main’ villain – a floating CGI head with massive cloud tentacles – barely even registers as a convincing threat until virtually the end of the film).
In terms of balancing spectacle, it’s the same problem that the original Michael Bay Transformers movie faced – how to cope with the fact that the budget won’t stretch to setting the entire film on Oa (or with the fact that, thanks to the CGI approach to the costume, every single shot of Reynolds in costume is an effects shot) – and while Bay’s solution was hardly brilliant (filling the film with clumsy racial stereotypes and John Turturro overacting), Green Lantern’s earthbound scenes aren’t exactly much better, frequently feeling like a rather limp and gag-free version of Nineties CG-fest The Mask – or, in one slightly unwise balcony-set scene, Disney’s Aladdin (where it wouldn’t have surprised me if the costumed Hal had immediately taken Carol Ferris for a flight and a rousing chorus of ‘A Whole New World’). The Oa scenes simply crank up the spectacle to a level the rest of the film (bar the climax) can’t hope to match, and it’s hard not to think that maybe (especially in the wake of Avatar, which took audiences to an alien planet for the whole film) leaving Oa for a sequel might have been a wiser move.
Naturally, this won’t stand – Hal has to go to Oa because ‘that’s how it happened in the comics’ – and while fidelity to the source material is usually used as a benchmark of quality for comic book adaptations, Green Lantern is another example to stand alongside Watchmen that sometimes throwing the comic onscreen note-for-note isn’t the best idea. While the film draws massively from the recent run overseen by comics writer Geoff Johns, Green Lantern itself has been around in one form or another since 1940 (with the Hal Jordan iteration of the mythos debuting in 1959), meaning that over the years it’s ended up as a rather odd mish-mash of different concepts from different decades, many of which sit rather weirdly together when thrown into live-action. Most notably, there’s the GL costume’s slightly ludicrous domino mask, which only really works in the scene where the film deliberately mocks it, along with the deeply silly Green Lantern Corps’ poetic oath (Would any modern screenwriter in their right mind attempt to pitch “Yeah! He’s a cop from space… and he also does poetry!”?), and the fact that one of the main characters (who also sports a not-in-any-way-villainous forties moustache and pointy eyebrows) is given the “Honest, there’s no chance of me turning evil” name of Sinestro.
The end result is an occasionally head-scratching pot-pourri of influences, and the film’s solution to this potential problem is to simply throw it all onscreen and hope for the best. While it captures the general pacing and structure of a Geoff Johns comic well (even down to the exposition-heavy opening), all it proves is that the kind of pacing and storytelling that works in superhero comics often falls flat on the big screen. The film’s story simply consists of important character moments without any of the connective tissue that actually makes it feel like a movie. Things seem to just happen, characters are moved around with little to no logic (especially when Hal heroically bursts into a room at one point for absolutely no reason), plot arcs are introduced and then abandoned (such as Hal’s family, who are given a fairly major introduction in the first fifteen minutes and then never seen again), while even the mid-credits Marvel-style ‘teaser’ scene, obviously inserted to whet the appetite for a potential sequel, instead blows the film’s most interesting character arc out of the water and simply seems to happen because, well, that’s what happened in the comics.
Maybe with a different director, the film could have been sharper – after all, Martin Campbell is a really weird choice for a CGI-fest, with his background being in executing practical action on a grand scale in films like Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale. While he does pull off a couple of good-looking sequences, he simply can’t bring the film to life and fails to give it the sense of wonder and involvement it needs. But then, he’s saddled with a weak screenplay full of clunky and uninspired dialogue that any filmmaker probably would have struggled with. The cast largely do their best – after being apparently considered for every single superhero role going, Ryan Reynolds gives a confident lead performance, although he’s much better at the cocky arrogance than the mopey soul-searching, and Peter Sarsgaard makes a serious attempt to do something kooky with his villainous role, even though even he can’t make a low-rent telepath with gigantism into a convincing adversary.
There’s also excellent work from Mark Strong as Sinestro, although Blake Lively is rather flat and wooden as Carol Ferris, while both Angela Bassett and Tim Robbins are reduced to looking slightly embarrassed in extended cameos. Nobody’s exactly dreadful – Green Lantern isn’t interesting enough for that; it aims squarely in the middle of the road, and what we get is a perfunctory superhero origin, with all the character moments marked in triplicate for those not paying attention. There’s the potential for a good film here, but so much is lazily underdeveloped (like the conflict between Hal and Hector Hammond over Carol Ferris, which barely gets mentioned for half the movie before suddenly becoming a vital plot point) that once again, DC has been left in the dust by Marvel.
Ultimately, a live-action Green Lantern seems like a flawed prospect from the get-go – it’s a concept that would play much better in animation (reducing some of the budget problems, and enabling the ‘unlimited imagination’ of the ring constructs to really cut loose), and simply feels constrained by the limits of how much this kind of photo-real CG animation costs. An Incredibles-style CG cartoon could, in theory, be a brilliant idea, and the mix of tones in the GL mythos would play much better if it was slightly stylised, but of course, live-action is what the market demands, and that’s what it gets. Of course, a continuation of the franchise isn’t impossible, and it seems like Green Lantern will eventually turn a profit – but on the current form, it’ll have to do a hell of a lot better on its second movie if it isn’t simply going to be written off as yet another cinematic superhero misfire.
The Verdict: A superhero blockbuster that will leave fans of the comic delighted and everyone else wondering what the hell just happened, Green Lantern is not the death knell of superhero movies, or an absolute celluloid disaster. It’s just a misconceived and poorly executed romp that falls a long way short of equalling any of the decent and entertaining superhero flicks in the last ten years.