Monday, June 20, 2011

Zaki's Review: Green Lantern

When I reviewed Jonah Hex last summer, I proclaimed the screen adaptation of the DC Comic (which I readily copped to not being intimately familiar with) as "another disposable piece of summer flotsam." Now cut to a year later and here I am saying the exact same thing about another DC Comics translation. And while Green Lantern isn't anything close to the utter catastrophe of Hex, the fact that I am intimately familiar with the character and concept makes the bitter aftertaste that much more pronounced.

It shouldn't have been like this, of course. Created by artist Martin Nodell in the "Golden Age" of comics in the 1940s and revived with a science fiction twist in the early '60s by editor Julius Schwartz, writer John Broome, and artist Gil Kane, this has always been one of the most film-ready properties in the entire DC arsenal. But for as much time as it spends schooling erstwhile test pilot-turned-space cop Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) on the emotions of will (represented by the color green) and fear (represented by the color yellow), the one emotion I never expected to feel during a Green Lantern movie was boredom.

And as a fan of the Lantern mythology going back to my earliest years (with the collecting bona fides to prove it), what makes his feature entrĂ©e doubly frustrating for me is how much the filmmakers got right, from his origin to his supporting cast to his characterization. In terms of fidelity to the source, about a corps of 3600 peacekeepers who patrol the galaxy armed with the titular green bauble, this is a near-flawless visual and tonal translation (which I'm sure co-producer Geoff Johns, who's been shepherding Jordan's comic book adventures since 2004, played a substantial role in ensuring), and if that's the only criteria we use, then I suppose one could classify Green Lantern as a rousing success.

But of course a good film is more than just the relative merits of its individual pieces, and where this one falls down is in its failure to sew those pieces together into a worthy effort that truly stands on its own. For all the money Warners clearly lavished on the effects, and for all the effort they expended to recruit a top flight ensemble to populate the cast and a top flight crew to photograph them, writers Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim seemingly forgot to write a script that does more than go through the motions like superhero "mad libs," reminding us at every turn how other movies have paved this road already -- and done it better, to boot.

By now we've seen the superhero origin story so many times that there are few surprises left other than how readily apparent the franchise-building machinery at work underneath will be. Start with a reluctant protagonist, imbue him with some manner of fantastic ability, see him use his newfound powers for cheap thrills and fame, then watch him answer "the call" and becoming a full-fledged hero. Wash, rinse, repeat. This template applies whether we're talking about Tony Stark suiting up in metal long johns, or Hal Jordan putting on a ring that can turn anything he thinks of into a reality through sheer force of willpower.

Thus, we get the usual "feet of clay" moments as Jordan wonders if he's the right person to carry this responsibility. Thus, we get the will they/won't they flirtation with the requisite love interest (in this case aviation heiress Carol Ferris, played by Blake Lively -- whose last name, if said with air quotes, can serve as an ironic commentary on her performance). Thus, we get the training sequence on the distant planet Oa with the enormous pig-like drill sergeant Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clark Duncan) wherein our hero starts out overmatched, but uses guts and determination to prove he's got "the stuff." And finally, we have the climactic confrontation with the big baddie (here it's Parallax, the cloud-like embodiment of fear, armed with amorphous tentacles and a skull-shaped head).

Woven into the middle of all of this is a go-nowhere plotline involving Jordan's childhood friend (and eventual GL villain) Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard, playing his role like he wandered in from the David Lynch set across the way), whose encounter with a space alien's corpse leaves him with an evil eye and a heavy head. Also in the mix is Tim Robbins, in what is perhaps the best example of "what the heck is he doing here?" casting that I've ever seen, as Hammond's senator father, and Angela Bassett as Amanda Waller, an omnipresent figure in the DC Comics universe, who may well represent an attempt to lay the groundwork for a "shared universe" like the one Marvel has been plying for several summers now.

Over the course of Green Lantern's production, I've gone back and forth about whether or not Ryan Reynolds was the right guy for this part (with my concern being that he's a little too young, and a little too snarky), but he acquits himself just fine. Although he never takes ownership of his role the way Robert Downey did with Iron Man (a similarly second-tier hero who Downey single-handedly launched onto the A-list), I think at least part of that can be attributed to the limitations of the character himself. As far as I'm concerned, Reynolds practically deserves a medal for how well he anchors the proceedings: confident when he needs to be, vulnerable when he needs to be. Not necessarily a star-making turn, but still the best thing about the movie.

Of the supporting players, actor Mark Strong probably takes the prize for doing the most with an underwritten role as Sinestro, the noble, purple-skinned Lantern who serves as de facto leader of the alien multitudes that populate the Corps (and whose name should provide as good an indication as any that the rings aren't always so smart about who they pick to bear their standard). Given that Strong's role in this entry is primarily to set up a sequel (and he's done no favors by a ridiculous post-credits sequence that will only prove frustrating to longtime fans and nonsensical to the uninitiated), it proves pretty thankless, but he manages to sell it.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in all of this for me is director Martin Campbell, who successfully revived Agent 007 not once, but twice, and whose signing had me the most excited about the prospects of Green Lantern finding success on the big screen. I'd hoped that his consistently adept handling of action sequences (witness the first fifteen minutes of Casino Royale) would assure a real world grounding for the film, but instead it seems Campbell lost his way somewhere in the CGI jungle, leaving us with Earth-bound scenes that are weighted down by undeveloped characters speaking uninteresting dialogue, and space-bound scenes that are overwhelmed by their effects-heavy focus.

Watching Marvel's Thor two months ago, I noted how impressed I was by the clinical precision with which director Kenneth Branagh and his team were able to make a mid-level hero's cinematic debut appeal to the comic book buffs who made up his core constituency while also taking care to welcome in the wider audience necessary to make the thing a success. Seeing how thoroughly the Warners team dropped the ball with a character who I think it's fair to say occupies a parallel position on the B-list, I realize in hindsight that the Marvel folks only made it look easy.

Contrary to the tone I'm taking here, I really didn't hate Green Lantern. It's far too limp and listless to elicit as visceral a reaction as that. And though it remains to be seen whether the filmmakers and/or the studio will ever get the opportunity to address their missteps here in a potential sequel, I do hope they get that opportunity. Not because of the movie they made, but because of the one they could have made. This isn't quite the stake through the heart of the superhero movie that some of its most vociferous critics are making it out to be, but it sure isn't the genre's brightest day, either. C


RobRoy said...

Still have yet to give it a go. But I've been calling it a "mess" for the last three months now.

That topless robot recap had me in stitches by the way.

As always, a solid review, Mr. Zaki! I only hope GL didn't rot the tastebuds of movie-goers in regards to comic book films.

If so, I feel sorry for Cap. =(

But who am I kidding. Cap'll be great!

Eric Sean said...

I enjoyed it and had a fun time. I don't necessarily disagree with some of your criticisms. I saw it as a flawed gem noticing weaknesses in pacing and editing. I guess my inner geek is so thrilled with what and how much they got right that I'm letting these problems slide with an eye toward a more solid sequel and, hopefully, more DC character films.

I hope this finds you well, Zaki.

Zaki said...

Hi Eric!

I too would love to see more DC-based films of the non-Super/Bat variety. Sadly, I have a feeling that my hopes of a Wally West film will remain forever unfulfilled.