Film Review: ‘Green Lantern’

Posted on June 21, 2011


Green Lantern

Summary: What should have been a super-powered space opera instead flounders as a run-of-the-mill superhero story with inconsistent writing.
Rating: 5.5/10

** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the film.**

Review Trailer
The quick skinny on the movie.

Test pilot Hal Jordan is selected to be the latest member of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic peace keeping force, when the protector of his sector of space is mortally wounded in a fight with a being that embodies fear itself. Hal has lived his life recklessly since his test pilot father’s death in a plane accident, never accepting that his fearlessness comes from a fear of being afraid. Hal must navigate this conundrum to accept his calling, take his place amongst the Corps, and face the very threat that killed his predecessor.

Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.

So … Green Lantern isn’t as outright wretched as some of the hyperbole that has been flying around about it would have you believe, but it’s also a movie that I could never recommend to anyone. I’m, honestly, not sure how anyone can. The biggest problem with it is its consistency is all over the place. The biggest outcome from it is far more dangerous – to its genre, anyway – than any villain in the film.

In full disclosure, I have wanted a big-screen treatment of Green Lantern for many years. I’m not only a fan of the character but, at one point, I took a stab at adapting the property myself. It was a disastrous stab that was cut short by an overzealous desire to curb what was rumored to be Warner Bros. creative direction for the character at the time: a comedy vehicle for Jack Black. And while there was some truth to the rumors it turned out, the timeframe to roll the film into production was greatly exaggerated back in late spring, early summer 2004. What I submitted on spec was a mess and it was ultimately read and rejected by the studio. Strictly for context, you can find that script draft here: Green Lantern – 07.22.2004 [PDF]

I mention this to point out my relationship to this film. I had spent a number of years researching the character, the history and mythology. I was – and certainly am – not an expert, by any means, but I’d come to have a fair knowledge and understanding of this particular fiction. I also recognized the potential this possesses as a franchise and as a unique subset in the increasingly saturated superhero film genre. I share all of this not to inflate my considerable ego or boast, but merely to say that I have been looking forward to a GL film and eagerly hoped it would be done well. I’ve invested enough of myself that I want the character to succeed and, hopefully, flourish.

The studio eventually scrapped the comedic slant and went with the straightforward approach, which was exciting to hear. The talent they started to bring on-board to develop the script was encouraging as well. And while Martin Campbell wasn’t an initial standout to take on the film, I’ve enjoyed enough of his work to have bought right into him as director. Then … the casting began. And story elements started to leak. And production art and design choices. And limited marketing, hampered by issues – foreseen or not – in the massive visual effects process. During the whole production cycle, more and more came out that began to wane my interest and made me feel they fell into all of the traps that I’d seen in trying to adapt it myself. I can say that I went into the finished film with barrel-bottom expectations.

The kindest thing to say is the film met those expectations. There are a few moments where the film truly soars and portends of the great film this could have been if an honest passion had existed behind it. There are quite a number of moments where the film is as gawd-awful hokey as most tries at superhero films in the ’90s were, moments where my face involuntarily cringed and I wanted to hide in a corner from embarrassment. For most of the film, though, there exists this limp air of mediocrity, a sense of “we did just good enough” that left me both disappointed and somewhat apathetic to the whole experience.

Ryan Reynolds is both a godsend and a detriment to the movie. I was never behind his casting as Hal Jordan. I don’t have a problem with him. I’ve been watching him since he was on a cruddy Canadian teen soap called Fifteen, shown in the states on Nickelodeon many years ago, and have generally enjoyed his performances. But he has a unique screen presence and delivery that worked great as Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity and as Wade “He Who Would Be Deadpool” Wilson in the early parts of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He’d also make a wonderful Wally West in an adaptation of The Flash. His “feel” on-screen, though, didn’t match Hal Jordan and, seeing him in the film, that holds true. He just has an all-too-self-aware comedic style that doesn’t fit the off-the-cuff, roguish charm of Hal.

There were three scenes where he felt closest to the character of Hal: the lovely moment between Hal and his nephew Jason; the scene where Hal interrupts Sinestro and addresses the Guardians; and the very last scene with Hal and Carol. Other than that, it felt like the parts of Van Wilder where the title character realizes the error of his ways, has to turn serious, and makes changes in his life. Paradoxically, the movie also benefits from the presence of Ryan Reynolds (not Hal Jordan) because this version would’ve been lifeless, for the most part, without him.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s entirely Reynolds’ fault. In fact, I don’t put much blame on him at all. He was miscast in the role to begin with and Campbell didn’t seem to give him much to do outside of his comfort zone. The real fault, though, lies in the script. For all the focus on Hal in the writing, which was the correct notion, they never capture the character found in the comics. They make a point to stress how Hal rolls right over his fear to take the attitude and approach to life he has, but then immediately spend the movie drowning him in his fears. I get the arc they are trying to set up, but it’s not true to the source material and it rings false within the film itself. You never get a feel for why he would be chosen to inherit the ring from Abin Sur and the character’s entire arc, as written, serves to undercut any inherent specialness of Hal Jordan. In fact, other than saying that the ring can see things in people they might not see in themselves, Hal’s selection comes across as rather arbitrary. Hal’s whole relationship with fear and the strength of his will comes across very different in the comics and it’s a shame they chose to sacrifice such a rare characterization for one so commonplace in superhero films.

The whole middle of the film falls flat because of a rather odd decision on the parts of the filmmakers. With material so ripe to take advantage of once they get Hal off Earth, they make the silly choice to send him back almost immediately. We get saddled with a second act chained to Earth and subject to a subpar treatment of the traditional superhero movie. There’s actually a point after Hal makes his first public save as Green Lantern – constructing a racetrack with the green energy patterned off of his nephew’s Hot Wheels toys; it’s so silly they actually make fun of it themselves in the movie – where I could swear I heard a snippet of John Williams’ Superman theme in the score as Hal flies off. (I’m not even going to comment on the disappointing and lifeless score James Newton Howard turned out for this.) Everything involving Hector Hammond felt like a distraction from the main plot and it all served to make a relatively short film – 105 minutes – feel long and drawn out.

Speaking of Hector, the two best performances in the film belong to Peter Sarsgaard and Mark Strong, both of whom felt like they were in completely different movies than the one they were in. Sarsgaard is exceptionally over-the-top, presenting himself as almost a Cronenbergian freakshow. In and of itself, it’s a fun little performance that looks to have given him an acting challenge he wouldn’t have found elsewhere. In the film, it makes him hard to connect with any of the other characters or the world of the film. In particular, you never really felt anything between he and Tim Robbins, who was playing his father, other than what was written to happen, which served to make his character’s whole motivation null and void. You also never got the impression that Hector’s abilities were driven and powered by fear, making him sort of a non-entity in the film. He was there mainly to provide a physical obstacle and didn’t really serve as one. His connection to Hal and Carol, without context, was also arbitrary. Again, these things aren’t the fault of Sarsgaard but of the script.

Mark Strong as Thaal Sinestro is the best thing in the movie and every time he’s on-screen he commands attention. His role is underwritten as well, never really grasping why he’s in his position amongst the Corps nor his motivations behind his abrupt actions and choices in dealing with Parallax. It’s a testament to Strong that the character registers as much as he does, also to his research as an actor. Knowing the character from the comics, everything Strong does as Sinestro comes from places true to the character. The script just doesn’t offer the slightest insight to what makes him tick to justify everything he does in the film. And certainly, there is no justification from the film for him to make the choice to put on the yellow ring of fear he does in the post-credits sequence. I have to say, I do love the moments of interaction they set between Sinestro and Hal, particularly the one at the Citadel of the Guardians. Again, these scenes with Sinestro speak to a much different, a much better movie.

Outside of those two and Reynolds’ personality helping to drive the film along, the rest of the acting fails to register, which is a shame given the talent they assembled. Angela Bassett is wasted as Amanda Waller and you can only hope DC puts together its own cinematic universe to use her again in a more substantive fashion in another film. Tim Robbins and Jay O. Sanders, two actors I often enjoy, offer nothing but surface characters. Again, not them but the script. They did very little with Tomar-Re and Kilowog to offer much to critique Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan on. I don’t like what they did with the character of Tom Kalmaku but I liked Taika Waititi in this particular film. And the less said about Blake Lively the better. There were a couple of beats where I believed her, but her constant preening, vapid presence, and too-quick and uninvested line delivery made her a black hole whenever she appeared on-screen. An unfortunate bit of casting considering the heavy reliance they put on Carol in the script.

The biggest debate for a lot of people has been over the effects in the film. Let me preface this by saying I have huge respect for the artistry and the labor that goes into this type of work in modern film. With the Transformers film franchise, I have nothing but respect for the time, effort and creativity that has gone into bringing those things to life on-screen, but I also find much of the design work and the execution absolutely ugly, busy and overly noisy. I have to say I found the same thing with Green Lantern. There are points where everything seems like a too-colorful, bubbly cartoon. And while I appreciate the creative concept behind the Lantern suits being “made of energy” – therefore, a CGI construct as much as all of the other constructs – I still would’ve preferred practical suits. There were moments where Hal or Sinestro were walking in wider shots that the suits made them move almost like Foghorn Leghorn, which is weird since the suits were digitally overlaid on skintight mocap suits. There were some laughably bad effects, particularly at the start of the film with the introduction to Parallax and during the all-too-brief and noisy fight scene with Abin Sur. The Guardians came across very disappointing, especially when we’ve seen so much better of similar work in films the past few years.

I also have to say I hated nearly every construct Hal made in the film. The only one that had me actually smiling was when he made the pool of water to catch Waller when she was dropped at the lab. For me, none of them felt like something Hal Jordan would create, even though he can create anything he could imagine. (The sword, especially, felt like the whim of the writers rather than a natural extension of Hal. Suddenly, he thinks he’s a swashbuckler?) They just didn’t seem to reflect his personality. And the one that did, the two jets pulling him from the Sun’s gravity during the fight with Parallax, felt incredibly silly to me. I’m still a bit torn on the large fist he used to punch Parallax in the end.

There were a few moments where I really enjoyed the film and felt like they captured some of what I wanted to see. Aside from the aforementioned bits with Sinestro, I enjoyed the scene where Hal tries to disguise his voice with Carol. Also, the part where Sinestro ropes Hal in after he’s defeated Parallax and reveals Kilowog and Tomar-Re alongside him, giving a sense of camaraderie. But that moment also frustrates me, because they make this huge stink about the Corps being “THE CORPS!”, and also that they must fight and defeat Parallax, yet the Guardians and the Corps completely abandon Hal. Where’s the unity and brotherhood in that? I know this is meant to bolster Hal as a unique presence in the Corps but it comes across as bad, arbitrary writing, especially when they have these three other Lanterns show up at the very end. That was a moment that made me want to punch something.

It must be said that this is a disappointment from Campbell. When he was picked as director, I’d hoped to see the attention to character and visual flourish for action that we’d seen in his two Bond films (both in my personal Top 5 of that franchise; GoldenEye at #5 and Casino Royale at #1); as well as the spirit and sense of fun and adventure present in the criminally underrated The Mask of Zorro. What I’d feared is that we’d get something akin to the repulsive The Legend of Zorro, and Green Lantern ends up sort of a spiritual cousin to that film. It’s not as outright gimmicky as that second Zorro film, but it does share what seems to be a lack of desire on Campbell’s part to elevate the proceedings. It’s pure cruise control coasting and, though so much of the film is flaccid, it’s average enough that I can’t saddle it with “worst of” titles like so many seem to be throwing at it. It is disappointing and a waste of money. This is the kind of thing better found on cable to help fill a lazy afternoon between things. If you haven’t seen it yet, wait for it then. Of the three superhero films that have so far been released this summer, this one easily brings up the rear behind Thor and X-Men: First Class.

I mentioned in the beginning this film being dangerous to its genre and it does so by being the kind of lackluster affair, where passion and care don’t seem to exist for it anywhere on the screen, that drove the genre into the ground 15 years ago. I have a huge affinity for comic-based films, but even I’m starting to feel the so-called “fatigue” of these kinds of movies. A film like Green Lantern, with so much money dumped into it and vastly diminishing returns, serves to make studios hesitant to push forward with these kinds of stories. While I think we might deserve a minor break from them – 4 this summer alone seems like overkill – this cavalier lack of care threatens to undo everything that’s been built up in the last decade. Some would champion that – and if it makes way for studios to take more risks on smaller films, I can’t fully argue against it – but I think this requires a reassessment of the business model not an outright abandoning. Warner Bros./DC, especially, needs to find their footing or Batman will continue to be the only character they have success with.

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