Saturday, August 13, 2011

DC's Great "Green" Hope

I didn't grow up with Green Lantern, and was only introduced to him through the various animated "Justice League" and "Superman" cartoons. I liked John Stewart, the African American Lantern who featured the most prominently in those versions. I wasn't clear on all the particulars of the Green Lantern ring that gave him his superpowers, or the Oath that was his creed, but I didn't need to. I liked the character, and when I heard that Warner Brothers was going to bring him to the big screen, I was looking forward to it. Of all the superhero films this summer, this was the one I thought had the best shot at success. You had a solid director in Martin Campbell, a rising star in Ryan Reynolds to play Hal Jordan, and a story that had a lot of potential.

Hal Jordan's origin differs from most, because the Green Lantern is one of many, each chosen by his or her ring, the source of every Lantern's power, to become a member of the Green Lantern Corp. Think intergalactic marines, who recruit from every corner of the galaxy. Hal, a test pilot, is called to duty when an alien Lantern named Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) loses a battle with a villain called Parallax, and crash lands on Earth, mortally wounded. Hal becomes the first human member of the Corp, a distinction that doesn't impress his new mentor Sinestro (Mark Strong), the Lantern who is leading the continuing fight against Parallax.

Of course Hal also needs a more personal villain to do battle with at home on Earth. Enter Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a troubled scientist who is exposed to Parallax and gains a very different set of superpowers. His beef with Hal is that both of them are in love with leading lady Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), Hal's childhood sweetheart and fellow test pilot at Ferris Engineering. Carol is also a rising executive at the company, owned by her family, and growing increasingly frustrated with Hal's flyboy antics. Put down a check for romantic tensions and mild bickering. Are we missing a comic relief character? Well, there's Thomas Kalmaku (Taika Waititi), upgraded from Hal's mechanic in the comics to an engineer in the film. He's really only around to be the helpful ally in a pinch, and someone for Hal to show off his new Lantern powers to.

Does this sound awfully formulaic and by-the-numbers yet? My guess is that "Green Lantern" was made by people who had been told what elements had to appear in a Green Lantern movie, and dutifully followed orders, but had no particular understanding or passion for the property itself. Despite multiple alien characters and superpowers that allow Hal Jordan to create literally any weapon he can imagine from the ring's energy, the film comes off as woefully lacking in imagination and short on surprises. The lousy script is so concerned with laying out plodding, predictable story beats, and making sure we understand all the nerdy technical things, like the difference between the green energy used by the heroes and the yellow energy used by the villains, it barely makes room for anything else.

I think part of the problem was the scale of the story, which has to send Hal off to other planets, and have him use these fantastic powers that are visually so outlandish that they often look cartoonish. The CGI suit and the special effects everyone was so worried about looked perfectly fine to me, but it was clear that the filmmakers had less faith, and were wary of leaning too heavily on the sequences where Hal is off training on the Lanterns' base on the planet Oa, and the scenes where he uses the ring. So we get action set-pieces that feel too short and perfunctory, and that hardly take advantage of the promised potential of the Green Lantern's powers. The most interesting elements are totally ignored or wasted. You'd think, having established that the ring needs to be periodically recharged in a literal green lantern, this would figure into the plot somehow.

But no. Instead, the film spends a lot of time pushing the story of Hector Hammond as a parallel to Hal Jordan. This doesn't really work, because the writers do such a poor job of establishing who Hammond is to any of the other characters or setting up any emotional stakes before he begins his transformation, and there's nothing particularly distinctive about him post-transformation aside from the comically huge cranium we've seen him sporting in all the television ads. Hal Jordan suffers many of the same problems, though to a lesser degree. He gets several anchoring relationships – with Carol, Thomas, a worried brother, a cute nephew, and a departed father – but all of them are badly underdeveloped. Only Carol is involved in the climactic ending, despite the movie deliberately taking the time to introduce all the others. What gives? All these loose ends suggest the four credited writers were working at odds with whoever was editing the film, or were simply not up to the task.

At least Ryan Reynolds has the presence and the charisma to keep Hal sympathetic, even though he behaves like a jackass for the first act, turns into a cipher for the rest of the movie, and gets the worst of some awful, awful dialogue. I felt bad for Reynolds, since this was supposed to be his shot at the big leagues, and now he's forever connected to a notorious flop. Carol Ferris was similarly a one-note shrew, but Blake Lively showed signs of a more promising performance as well. It was depressing to see so many other good actors wasted, like Tim Robbins and Angela Bassett. They didn't deserve to have this movie happen to them. Nobody did, least of all the Green Lantern himself, who could have been such a great contender in this summer's superhero wars.

I don't know what went wrong behind the scenes, why DC and Warner Brothers couldn't figure out how to make this story work when their competitors were doing so much more with considerably more difficult material. All I know is that "Green Lantern" felt slapped-together, amateurish, and all the extra money spent on special effects created some shiny images, but couldn't hide the fundamental truth that the script did not work. Maybe they should have focused more on the grander scale space opera sequences, which were the most consistent parts of the film. Or maybe they should have minimized the presence of aliens and confined the story to Earth, with Hal learning about the ring on his own, and only introduce the Corp at the end. Maybe a lighter tone and a few good one-liners would have helped.

And that's what I'm left with, a lot of maybes and what-ifs and coulda-beens, instead of the "Green Lantern" movie I wanted to see.

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