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Non-Review Review: Green Lantern

Green Lantern is solidly middle of the road as far as superhero movies go. Perhaps in a less crowded (and less high quality) summer action season it would seem a stronger contender, but the film really shows as Warner Brothers’ first major attempt to produce a big-budget superhero film not directly related to Superman or Batman. It’s perfectly functional, managing to do everything it sets out to in a relatively efficient manner, but there’s never really a sense that the film exists as anything more than a series of plot points that need be checked in order for the movie to cross the finish line. Given the potential of the source material, as well as its relatively unique nature amongst the slew of generic superheroes, a functioning and formulaic adventure can’t help but feel like a bit of a disappointment.

Hal Jordan: Space Cop? It has a nice ring to it...

Note: We also have an introduction to the Green Lantern mythos available, if you’re interested in checking it out.

The movie is essentially two movies rolled into one big package. It’s simultaneously this gigantic epic space saga about strange blue aliens harnessing the power of emotion to keep the universe safe, and also a more generic earth-bound superhero movie complete with evil counterpart. Being honest, it isn’t a case that one of these two plots is stronger than the other, or that they are weak plots of themselves. It’s just that the movie can’t really gel them conveniently together, which makes the movie seem maddeningly inconsistent at times.

We spend ten minutes getting an oral history of the Green Lantern Corps, recounting a whole host of exposition we know will come in handy later. Then, after ten minutes of watching (admittedly impressive) CGI, we are dropped back to Earth to spend twenty minutes getting to know cocky fighter pilot Hal Jordan, who is a bit of an obnoxious ass who only seems to get away with being a dick to everyone who cares about him because he’s played by Ryan Reynolds. That guy could get away with anything. Then he’s suddenly recruited to join the Green Lanterns, whisked into space, learns his powers, meets new friends… and then bounces back to Earth… and so on. There’s never a sense of balance or symmetry the film, which moves through a plotting version of ping-pong.

Hector always had a big head...

In fact, the movie seems so intent on cramming everything in that a lot of ideas don’t really get too much room to breathe. At one point, half way through the film, Hal decides he’s had enough of being lectured and flies off back to Earth. Later on, he tells his on-again, off-again, on-again girlfriend Carol that he “quit.” If not for that line of dialogue, I would just assume he’d sort of stormed off and decided he’d learned enough to be a proper Green Lantern. After all, he doesn’t return the ring (and, to be frank, if somebody quit my intergalactic police force, I’d take back their weapon), and actually carries on with the superheroism regardless. I honestly wasn’t aware that he’d quit two scenes back until he announced he’d quit two scenes back.

The other primary problem, and this is where the film shows its age when measured against more modern superhero films, is the fact that a lot of character actions and motivations seem to happen because the movie needs them too. They don’t flow from a sense of character among the supporting cast. In X-Men: First Class, for example, you know why Charles and Erik believe what they do and why they act the way they do. In Thor, the title character’s exile on Earth results from his quickly-established arrogance and foul temper, it flows from an understandable character motivation – as does everything that his brother Loki does.

Will the DC Universe take off after this?

In this film, a very important supporting Green Lantern, Thaal Sinestro, challenges the Guardians of the Universe who run the Green Lantern Corps and insists they start harnessing the power of fear. It’s something the character has to do to set up a key plot point down the line, but it doesn’t come from anywhere. Why Sinestro? Why not Killowog, who seems to train his recruits with fear? The movie doesn’t bother giving us a reason why a veteran Green Lantern, and one who seems have done quite well using the green energy of willpower, suddenly wants a change. One can assume it only happens because the comic book character he’s based on turns out to be evil.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad. There are some great little moments scattered throughout the film, and some clever moments. I especially love the clever subversion of the classic “superhero gets the girl” routine, when Carol proves herself far smarter than Lois Lane. Lane famously took until the sequel to deduce her crush’s secret identity, while Carol does it straight away. “Did you think I wouldn’t recognise you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” she mocks Hal’s domino mask. Asked why he’s wearing it, he replies, somewhat deflated, “It came with the suit.” There are a few smaller moments like this which hint at what the movie really could have been, as they feel like a spiritual successor to the coy way that Richard Donner used to play with the Superman mythos (phone booth, anyone?).

What the smurf is going on?

More than that, the movie does do quite well when it actually finds the space to pause and enjoy itself – even just a little bit. For example, the way that Green Lanterns fly tells us more about their character than anything else in the film. Tomar-Re practically swims gracefully through the air. Killowog isn’t so much about flying as he is about landing. Sinestro zips through the air because he’s always got somewhere to be, and he takes the most direct route. Hal moves like a fighter jet, spinning and banking. It’s a nice element of the film, but it’s telling that it’s one of the more fascinating and complex.

Peter Sarsgaard also seems to be having a great deal of fun. Despite the fact he’s not the movie’s primary villain, he lights up the screen every time he’s up there. Nobody does slimy quite like Sarsgaard, and he actually manages to do a decent job when landed with a terrible moustache and a really awkward prosthetic. Hammond is a one-note baddie, but Sarsgaard plays him as a genuine creep, whether he’s sniffing Carol’s hair while hugging her, or collecting press clippings about her.

Kilowog chews out the green Green Lanterns...

Here, again, the script seems just a little bit too strictly tied to formula. We get it. Hal and Hector are two sides of the same coin. Their powers were granted to them in the wake of the same death. They both live in the shadows of their fathers, trying somehow to make their own way in the world. The movie clumsily juxtaposes the two characters repeatedly, just in case we don’t get that they’re counterparts to one another. Trust me, by the time the third such montage occurs, you’ll get it.

In fairness to Hector, despite his creepy mannerisms towards Carol, I actually think that Hal comes across as a bit of an entitled dick. Hector wants to share the knowledge of the alien autopsy with the world, and is infected while doing his bit for science. Hal is just completely unreliable, and crashes three very expensive planes. As he stares at Hal, who got a superpower ring that lets him do anything he can imagine, while he is destined to spend his life winning elephant man look-alike competitions, Hector asks, “How did we end up so different?” Later on, Hal answers that with a smug and incredibly entitled, “You have to be chosen.” Yeah, so what if Hal remembered his nephew’s birthday? He still spends the movie driving his girlfriend’s company into the ground and abandoning anyone who ever cared about him… He just seems like a bit of a dick at that point.

Saving something Sinestro for the sequel?

The movie runs on special effects. To be honest, these are quite nice. The CGI in general is pretty great, and even though there are awkward moments when Hal is interacting with his computer-generated co-stars, it remains consistent throughout. The movie is undeniably hokey. It’s literally about a magic green ring that can do anything its wearer tells it to. There are going to be viewers who find the idea that willpower is a green energy source an immediate turn-off, and can’t get on-board because of that. I don’t see a problem with it, hokey can be done well, and hokey can be charming. And some of the especially effects work here (Hal building a racetrack or a duel between Hal and Sinestro) is charming and effective. Yes, Hal has the imagination of a small boy, building race cars and flamethrowers and springs, but that’s part of the appeal.

I think a larger problem is the simple fact that the movie is saddled with a lot of exposition. Really, it opens with a monologue from Geoffrey Rush that feels just a little bit like it was a late addition – most of the information he gives is repeated later. Various interactions between characters seem to exist purely to provide large dumps of information that movie the plot forward, building up a mythos that we’re not being shown so much as told about. In fact, I think that’s the really big problem. The world being built is an epic science-fantasy, but we seem to spend most of our time in a circle of blue smurfs talking about saving the universe rather than watching them actually save the universe. For example, Sinestro spends more time asking to lead a squadron of Lanterns to confront a threat than he does actually confronting the threat.

Yell-o? Is there anybody in there?

There are other smaller problems. Although the cast are, as a whole, quite impressive, the script does seem interested in developing any of them beyond Hal, and even Hal just goes through a by-the-numbers lesson in the fact that he doesn’t need to walk away from everybody who has ever tried to help him. In fact, I was a bit disappointed that the finale saw Hal vanquishing the villain by himself, seen as one of the key themes seemed to be that he needed to learn he wasn’t alone and that there were people who could help him if he let them. Instead, we get a small token appearance from the other Green Lanterns towards the end, and one can’t help but feel that a major dramatic moment was missed. For a superhero franchise which prides itself on the fact its hero isn’t the only one of his kind, there’s very little sense of what makes the character unique.

In fact, the whole movie feels very “small” despite having a remarkably wide canvas. Despite the fact we’re shown 3600 Green Lanterns, and the universe is a vast place, Hal seems to be the only recruit that Kilowog is training. The universe seems to consist of deep space and Oa, with no real sense that there’s a host of alien cultures out there. The supporting cast might as well have emerged from the vacuum of space, with no sense of character. It feels very restrictive, an example of the movie telling us the universe is a rich and diverse place, but not really showing us anything of it. Would an establishing shot of Sinestro keeping the peace on his own planet while talking with Abin Sur or hearing of his mentor’s death been too much? Instead, it seems the characters just hang around Oa rather than doing stuff in their own immeasurably vast sectors of space.

Taking the matter in hand...

I can’t help but get the sense that Martin Campbell, the director of GoldenEye and Casino Royale, was a poor choice for this film. Simply put, the movie doesn’t balance its lighter and darker elements particularly well. On one hand, Hal goofs around and has an “I know, right?” gee-whizz reaction to his superpowers, while, on the other, one villain is a cloud composed of a collection of skeletons constantly screaming in ever-lasting agony who seems to literally suck the souls out of his victims. Plus he’s voiced by Clancy Brown, which is awesome. While moments between Hal and Carol and handled well, there’s no sense that Campbell really know what to do with the Green Lantern on Earth. You’d imagine his appearance would be “kind of a big deal”, but there seems to be one report before everyone is used to it again.

Even the final confrontation seems a bit of a rushed mess. I actually didn’t mind the interaction between Reynolds and Sarsgaard, and was a bit disappointed when it became Hal against a giant CGI mess. Indeed, the conflict’s resolution is quite trite – to the point where you wonder why no other character (including Abin Sur) even thought of the possibility the first time around.

Hal has a Lively love life...

Nevermind some of the many plot holes that pop into the viewer’s head as they watch the film. Abin Sur traps the most powerful entity in the universe… and just leaves it on a rock somewhere for a bunch of broken down aliens to inadvertently set free? If the only people on Oa are Guardians of the Universe and Green Lanterns, why does there appear to be traffic happening underneath all the activity we can see? If Hector can read people’s minds (he needs to touch them to see their memories, but can hear their internal monologues), how come he can be lured into what amounts to an ambush? And, to repeat one from earlier, if Hal quit the Corps, how come he got to keep his ring? None of these are fatal flaws, but they do point to a world that doesn’t feel thoroughly or thoughtfully constructed.

The movie ends, as seems obligatory these days, with a sequel hook. I’ll talk a bit more about in the next few days, as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone attending the film. However, it alludes one of the best-received comic book storylines of the past decade. The move is poorly foreshadowed and seems to exist purely as a twist for the sake of a twist. If the movie does get a sequel, I really hope some major changes are made behind the scenes. Nothing in this film supports the idea that the writers or (sadly) the director can deliver on the potential of the franchise.

Green Lantern isn’t a bad film. It’s a functional one. It’s efficient. It’s superhero-by-numbers. The problem is that its light doesn’t shine so brightly when there are so many stellar superhero films already out there.

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10 Responses

  1. It’s strange to me that Green Lantern is getting hit with the criticisms that Thor got a pass on. I found Thor to be poorly developed, and frankly poorly acted and silly like a Masters of the Universe for the 21st century…watching Green Lantern last night, I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed it, particularly with a more likeable lead and a less “all over the map” supporting cast, the final confrontation is much more satisfying…but different strokes right?

    • I actually thought the opposite – I think that, though they are quite similiar, Thor and Green Lantern actually have inverse strengths and weaknesses. Green Lantern did a lot of things well that Thor struggled with. For example, call me old fashioned, but Hal and Carol made a much better couple than Thor and Jane and their interactions were much stronger.

      On the other hand, Thor did a much better job in giving its characters clear motivations, for example. Loki and Odin aren’t the most complex characters in the history of cinema, but they seem realistic and groudned when measured against Sinestro or the Guardians. Why is Sinestro interested in using fear as a weapon, especially when he knows it corrupted a Guardian? Because it’s a sequel hook.

      And Thor’s emotional arc seems far more complete than Hal’s. Thor learns humility, a rather trite and cliché personal lesson, but it comes with actual character growth. Hal learns that, if you’re an asshole to those around you, odds are you’ll either turn into a deformed freak with a huge forehead, or get a magic green ring that will allow you do whatever you want. He practically defeats Parallax using the same technique he did against the robot fighters at the start, with no real insight or innovation. It might have been better for him to finally accept that he needs to admit when he needs help (and that others are willing to give it) or that he’s stronger when he’s not alone.

      Hal strikes me as the same guy at the end of the film that he was at the start. Just with an awesome green ring and a job as a space cop instead of a test pilot. There’s nothing to convince me, a few months from now, he won’t be sleeping in on an important deadline again or doing something reckless and stupid that damages those around him due to his carelessness.

      But, as you said, different strokes, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I definitely agree with Thor’s arc being much more developed than Hal’s. Great review, Darren, I have mine coming out at Flickchart on Friday.

  3. I’m siding with you on this one. Fairly bland.

  4. There is a fine line between a good movie and a great one – and this film flirted with that line but didn’t quite cross it. It couldn’t decide if it wanted to be story driven or a summer blockbuster. And while trying to be a blend of both, became neither and left me feeling like there should have been more. It was a good time that had all the potential to be a great time…

    See my full review…http://theboxedoffice.blogspot.com/

  5. Its was OK but the story line was a bit off. Next time they need to just pick a comic book and stick with it, there is enough info to make a movie. Quit trying to cram every bit of info in 1 movie! Start from beginning move from there.

    • Ah, I don’t think picking a comic and adapting it line-for-line is the best approach. Film and comics are different media, after all. Nolan seemed to do a good job synthesising a wide variety of source material into a trilogy of films.

  6. Just a few words from me.. there is a fine line between a good movie and a great one – and this film flirted with that line but didn’t quite cross it. It couldn’t decide if it wanted to be story driven or a summer blockbuster. And while trying to be a blend of both, became neither and left me feeling like there should have been more. It was a good time that had all the potential to be a great time…

    anyway I found your review usefull! Big kudos! 🙂

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