Friday, June 24, 2011

THE LIGHT CASTS A DIM, NARROW BEAM: A Knee Jerk Review of Green Lantern

[THERE BE SPOILERS HERE. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

In Brightest Day, in Blackest Night
No Evil Shall Escape My Sight
Let Those Who Worship Evil’s Might
Beware My Power…Green Lantern’s Light.

Funny how prophetic that last line of the oath perfectly encapsulates the Green Lantern film.  Green Lantern’s light…that is, it’s light on so many levels. The interesting thing about “light” is that when perceived as a whole, it’s white and blinding (depending on the intensity). It’s only when it’s refracted that the individual colors of the spectrum are noticed: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. One cannot appreciate the totality of light if the individual elements are glaringly obvious and so it is with the Green Lantern. Speaking for myself (and what critic doesn’t, really), when I see a film I want to be taken in by the whole experience and carried away by the story. It’s not like I go into a film wanting to take it apart, especially in this case such a highly anticipated one. But if I start noticing the elements despite myself, then there is a problem.
This story of Hal “Highball” Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a reckless, irresponsible test pilot in the mold of “Han Solo” and “Maverick” who is chosen to wield a power ring whose only limitation is the imagination and fear of the wearer. As he comes to use/adapt to the ring, he must deal with his estranged girlfriend/employer Carol Ferris (a fish out of water Blake Lively), a rival for her affections turned arch nemesis, Hector Hammond (played with relish by Peter Sarsgaard) the condescension of his new comrades-in-arms in the Corps, epitomized by the Green Lantern Sinestro, and face down an all-powerful avatar of fear named Parallax who has murdered Green Lanterns before including Jordan’s predecessor Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison).
Sounds like a lot to pack in to a two hour package, doesn’t it? Well, it is.  Any one of those plot points could carry a two hour film. But, like other super-heroic cinematic forays before it, namely Batman & Robin, Spider-Man III, and even Iron Man II, Green Lantern is stuffed with so many elements there isn’t enough of an opportunity to satisfactorily develop everything.  One of the main “rules” in drama is “start small and build”. Instead this film starts big but doesn’t build into anything. Another “rule” in storytelling is “show, don’t tell”. The audience is told that Parallax is a great threat because he has annihilated whole worlds. However, the audience never sees this happen. The entity kills hapless aliens in its escape from imprisonment, kills Abin Sur (by a lucky shot), and huffs and puffs in CGI manner. But it is not until the entity reaches earth and starts killing human beings wholesale that there is any weight or evil to justify its menace. It’s the only time Parallax’s potential as a threat is shown. The viewer is told that Abin Sur was among the best of the Lanterns, but being that he was taken out in short order without having the benefit of seeing how tough Sur actually was, it amounts to an empty statement. The lesser villain, Hammond, is actually the more credible and engaging threat and not simply because he is played by a human actor, but because his sadism and resentment are experienced by the audience. Hammond has human motivation, something that the audience can grasp and empathize with. When Sarsgaard is on the screen he arrests attention and brings a crackling energy that the rest of the film lacks.
There are other attempts to humanize what amounts to a space epic but unfortunately fall short. Both Hal Jordan and Hector Hammond are shaped by their fathers, though Hammond’s sub-plot is developed more than Jordan’s, but it feels insufficiently developed and tacked on. The love/hate relationship between Jordan and Ferris doesn’t convey the sparks such a relationship should have (which unfortunately has more to do with the lack of chemistry between Reynolds and Lively more than anything else), as should the Sinestro (Mark Strong)/Jordan rivalry.  In fact, the lack of development in Sinestro is the most egregious error of the film. There is nothing in the film which justifies an action he takes midway through the end credits. Further, if such action is to be explained away in a future sequel, it is nothing short of lazy writing and direction, as is the consideration that if Parallax is so great a threat, why isn’t the entirety of the 3,600 member Corps dispatched to deal with it? Why does the salvation of the universe rest on the shoulders of one man (other than the fact that the nature of the film requires it to be such)?
Director Martin Campbell has had successes in the action genre (Goldeneye, Casino Royale, The Mask of Zorro) and failures (The Legend of Zorro). Green Lantern falls somewhere in the middle, as his disjointed film is a paint-by-numbers affair, with elements superficially touched upon but not developed to full potential. The pacing is off, where some scenes which should have been suspenseful seem plodding and out of place, doing little to truly advance the story further. For example, as wonderful as it was to hear Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan voice the Green Lanterns Tomar-Re and Kilowog respectively, their characters are given practically nothing to do, save for a literal two minute training sequence so lacking in execution that when Kilowog says his “can I train ‘em” near the film's end it rings hollow. Perhaps Mickey or Apollo Creed from the Rocky films should have been given Lantern rings. At least they would put Jordan through his paces sufficiently. And a scene where Green Lantern and Hammond face off in a research facility, they exchange dialogue that was pretty much inferred throughout the entire film. Though it leads up to an important moment, it wasn't necessary to the moment it supposedly builds to; what's supposed to build to a crescendo simply falls to a denouement to when it leads to the moment it engenders a "ho hum" effect; and speaking of crescendos and denouements, John Newton Howard's score, while lacking in distinctive themes or identity, is serviceable for the proceedings on the screen.
While not perfect in many instances, the visuals do stand out. The CGI does have more substance to them, which is something given that Parallax, mostly an amorphous cloudy creature (thankfully better rendered than Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), has more weighty substance than the CGI Hulk did in Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.
What does work in the film? Two words: Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds gamely pushes forward with an earnestness and belief in the role. There was fan outcry when he was initially cast as Jordan, being derided for being a primarily comedic actor…the same complaint which was leveled against Michael Keaton over two decades ago for another super-hero franchise. Yet Reynolds knows how far to take the humor, reining it in and allowing the scene to dictate the humor and knowing when to give the right amount of pathos when required. Its his ability to treat the material straight that grounds what could have amounted to an emotionless cartoon. He gives emotional center to the proceedings. Most importantly, while the sense of wonder that anyone would feel when given a device that amounts to Aladdin’s Lamp is decidedly lacking, he imbues the sense of fun that this film requires (especially during flight). And that is as it should be since this is not a neo-Shakespearian tragedy a la Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This is a light action film, which is not a bad thing. When the trend is to have heroes who are either alcoholics, possess severe vengeance issues or implied as being deadbeat dads, it is refreshing to have a hero’s arc be almost classical in interpretation. On the whole it is an enjoyable film but it’s akin to eating a chocolate bar: tasty and decadent upon experience but lacking in nutrition or substance. While it is a fun film to watch, it is marred by cursory exposition, undeveloped themes, and hints of what could have been.

4 comments:

  1. Glad I won't be seeing the film. Green Lantern never much impressed me. This whole concept of a super powerful ring that can manifest anything you can imagine bothers me.

    Mostly it bothers me because all Greenie ever seems to manifest are giant boxing gloves and weaponized toys. It's kind of goofy. Where are the green point singularity swarms that lacerate his enemies into Swiss cheese? If the only limit is your imagination then please go out and get one first.

    Thanks for the review Paul. I will be skipping this one.

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