18 June 2011

GREEN AROUND THE GILLS

I am not going to be so bold as to say that Green Lantern is good, but this much is certain: it is a hell of a lot better than it looks. Which isn't saying much, considering that it looks unspeakably abysmal but we take our pleasant surprises where we can find them.

The film, a rare example of a non-Batman/Superman DC superhero getting a big-screen vehicle, relates the story first told in 1959 of how hotshot test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) inherited the ring of a dying alien to become the first human being to join the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps, though he was but the second human being to bear the name Green Lantern, though this is not really at all the right moment to dig into the esoterica of Silver Age vs. Golden Age comic book series. Anyway, the GLC is a millennia-old group of space policemen, in essence, individuals tasked with maintaining order and justice throughout the universe, with the aid of powerful rings that use green energy to channel the willpower of the chosen wearer, allowing that individual to create a physical manifestation of anything he or she can imagine, and at the film's start, the Green Lanterns are under assault from an alien presence called Parallax (a hatchet job of TV-quality CGI voiced by Clancy Brown), a being that uses the yellow energy of fear to destroy even the doughtiest of its foes, even the mightiest of all Green Lanterns, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). It's this same Abin Sur whose ring seeks out Hal Jordan and drags the young man somewhat against his will into a galaxy-spanning fight against the forces of evil.

Let us not mince words: a sci-fi epic about a magic imagination ring and an octopus-shaped cloud and the human being who can only learn to use his ring if he can get over the feelings of loss that have haunted him ever since his hotshot test pilot daddy died in an accident, that is not a film that can be understood quite as readily as "angry rich man turns into a vigilante", "boy gets radioactive spider bite, becomes spider", or "alien who is basically Jesus Christ saves everybody all the time", and it is thus not altogether surprising that the casual fan - or, indeed, the non-fan! - of comic books might find Green Lantern a bit harder to get into than Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman. This has indeed been borne out by many reviewers, who have perhaps gone a little bit overboard in slagging on conceptual hooks that have been part of the character's biography since the early 1960s; but then, the makers of Green Lantern (including director Martin Campbell and four different screenwriters) don't necessarily help matters with a screenplay that makes up in volume what it lacks in elegance. Much of what goes into the film was rolled out slowly and meaningfully in the comic: here it is puked out all in great gloppy chunks. To counterbalance this, the writers give us the exact same wad of expository material over and over again: in voiceover at the start, twice on the Green Lanterns' base planet of Oa, once from Hal to his childhood friend and semi-awkward love interest, and newly-minuted boss, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively).

In essence, it's the simplest and most instantly understandable element of the character (he can make green objects with his ring, but only if he believes in them) repeated until even the dullest viewer gets it, while the vaster, more intricate universe-building is shot at the viewer like a Gatling gun assault. It is, one might say, anti-exposition, the kind that almost seems to make the material more difficult the understand than it deserves to be. Ultimately, it all boils down to "guys in yellow are bad, guys in green are good", which is enough to get us through this Green Lantern mostly intact; but the filmmakers seem entirely unconcerned with this Green Lantern, preferring to spend their time desperately setting up Green Lantern 2: While We're Trying to Get a Justice League Picture Started, and doing an entirely sloppy job of it.

That said...

The film is not without its charms. Not least of these is that of fan service: there are those of us for whom the mere fact of seeing the Green Lantern mythos on the big screen is in and of itself appealing (I am not ashamed to admit, dear reader, that I had to suppress a fanboyish squee when Reynolds first began intoning the Green Lantern Oath: "In brightest day..."). But it's also something that most comic book movies have failed to be in recent years: lighthearted. No, they're not all The Dark Knight, but by my reckoning we have to back all the way to the first Iron Man in 2008 to find a comic book movie with such a low sense of its own importance. Not a bad trick for a movie that crisscrosses the galaxy three separate times.

Admittedly, the kludged-together narrative is too sloppy and erratically-paced to say, in good faith, "it's so much fun!" because truth be told, a lot of it isn't fun: it takes what feels like half of the movie for anything resembling a plot to begin, and there's really only two setpieces in any meaningful sense of the word. Still, when the plot isn't grinding along in first gear, there's a brightness to Green Lantern that's lightyears away from the self-consciousness of even something as insubstantial as Thor. For starters, Reynolds makes a pretty damn good Hal Jordan, an admission that tastes like ash in my mouth. He perfectly nails the "likable schmuck" element of the character, and though he never quite finds his way around the hurt behind the braggadocio, this is after all a DC character - Bruce Wayne notwithstanding, they're not really meant to be psychologically dense like Marvel's stable of tragedians.

And while Martin Campbell has proven that he's capable of so very much more than this in the superlative James Bond pictures GoldenEye and Casino Royale, he's not entirely incapable of spicing up Green Lantern: at the very least, he gives the candy-colored visuals (most of which are CGI, and those which aren't courtesy of the reliably lovely if not always interesting cinematoraphy of Dion Beebe) plenty of room to breathe. Absent some unfortunately over-animated alien creatures - parts of the movie look basically like a cartoon, not the realistic effects in a live-action movie - the film does look a shitload better than the trailer promised, bright and poppy even in the moments that act like they're trying to be vast and epic.

The result is a wholly disposable, even fluffy superhero picture - the comparisons to Fantastic Four are inapt (it's not half as concerned with ghastly comic riffing as that film or its vile sequel) but hard to counter, given that both films are attempting with little or no success to capture the "gee whiz!" feeling of Silver Age comics - that is intermittently pleasant to look at, and reasonably playful when Reynolds or a sly and hammy Peter Sarsgaard as the arrogant brainiac villain* takes center stage. There's not much else to recommend it: Blake Lively is awful as the allegedly savvy and brash Carol Ferris in ways that I cannot quite articulate, and none of the many actors playing the various other Green Lanterns register in any meaningful way - not even Mark Strong as not-yet-iconic-villain Sinestro - and there's plenty of time spent wondering when they'll stop talking and do anything. But when doing is being done, then Green Lantern at least rises to the level of idly amusing summer trifle.

Also, it's a tentpole movie that comes in well under two hours. In this day and age, I can't begin to express how happy that makes me.

5/10

7 comments:

The.Watcher said...

Ah, I see you've finally installed some guidelines - good for you!

I pretty much figured GL would be a dud, although I'm surprised to find out it wasn't as bad as I imagined it. Still, this weekend will make a good night in, I can finally watch that 5 hour cut of Das Boot.

PS Have you heard of the supposedly planned 6-hour extended cut of Tree of Life?

Rick said...

My only comment (so far) is this: throughout Green Lantern, I kept wondering what that horrible noise was. When I saw the credits (and that abysmal last scene that angered me in its shamelessness & stupidity), I figured out what it was: James Howard Newton had written the music!

Is it a bad sign when you can recognize a composer because you DISLIKE the music? I saw his name and just blurted out, "KNEW IT!" complete with raising my hands in frustration.

Rick said...

Sorry: James Newton Howard...either way, it's still terrible music.

Densua said...

"... though he was but the second human being to bear the name Green Lantern, though this is not really at all the right moment to dig into the esoterica of Silver Age vs. Golden Age comic book series."

Haha! Nerd!

Also, could you give us a prediction for when you think they will stop making superhero movies? I want something to look forward to on the Hollywood front.

Tim said...

Rick- I have had that exact same reaction, many times, to James Horner music.

Densua- Well, here is what we know: four major pictures spread out through 2012 (Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man,Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel), and none of those will be stopped. I imagine that the 2013 Iron Man 3 is set in stone, but after Green Lantern, I think Warner is going to be very reluctant to make any movies without Batman or Superman, so Flash and Wonder Woman are probably off the table.

I guess my prediction is for two major superhero pictures in 2013, IM3 and Wolverine 2, the first of which will underperform and the second of which will bomb, and then nothing but Ghost Rider-sized projects for a year or two after that, though Warner is going to make a fourth Batman without Nolan or Bale, and it will tank.

Rick said...

Where, oh WHERE, have you gone Miklos Rozsa, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Victor Young, and Bernard Herrmann?

As for The Prophesy of comic book-adapted films, well, I think Man of Steel has one strike already: directed by Zac Snyder.

Densua said...

Thanks Tim. Though I am not at all cheered, I now feel well prepared for the onslaught of mediocrity coming on the horizon i.e. I shall be renting DVDs and avoiding cinema for the next couple of years.