Monday, June 20, 2011
Green Lantern Review: The Space Knight Rises
Continuing with this summer's crop of big-budget superhero movies, Green Lantern arrived in theaters last weekend. Unfortunately, unlike Thor and X-Men: First Class, the Green Lantern movie has become the whipping boy of movie critics who feel that there are just too many superhero movies arriving at the multiplexes. To be sure, Green Lantern is a more formulaic movie than its two immediate predecessors, so that would make it the most likely choice to get a collective wedgie from our nation's film critics who view blockbuster superhero movies as the unmistakable portents of our culture's decline. But don't let the negative reviews fool you--Green Lantern is a welcome blast of emerald-shaded, 3D summer fun (more fun than X-Men: First Class, actually) that's well worth the time of both comic book fans and general audiences alike. Read on for my complete review.
One of the problems with superhero movie franchises has been the issue of origin stories. It seems that every time that Hollywood chooses to bring a superhero to the silver screen, it almost always is in the form of an origin story that sets up characters, themes and settings for the purpose of establishing a framework for sequels. The problem with this trend is that while it makes sense to introduce audiences to a character by telling an origin story, the overreliance on origin stories as part of superheroes' portrayals in movies has resulted in a formulaic predictability that permeates many superhero films. Thus, for a superhero movie to succeed as the beginning of a franchise, other aspects of the superhero--aspects that make the superhero interesting and distinct from other characters who are similar to him or her--must be present within the origin story.
Green Lantern is a perfect example of this principle at work. The movie is at its best when it remains faithful to who and what the Green Lantern is, and it is at its most mediocre when it cribs plot themes from other superhero movies. Green Lantern tells the story of how test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) becomes part of the Green Lantern Corps, a group of intergalactic peacekeepers who patrol the universe. The Green Lanterns were formed by a group of immortal aliens called The Guardians and the Corps members derive their strength from their power rings, which transforms whatever the wearer is thinking into real (albeit temporary) objects. Jordan reluctantly accepts his invitation into the Corps, but his true mettle as a Green Lantern is tested when the amorphous, planet-destroying entity Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown) threatens to destroy Earth.
I'm not very familiar with the Green Lantern Corps and their particular corner of the DC superhero universe, so I can't say for sure how faithful the Green Lantern movie is to its source material. Yet for as little as I know, I couldn't help but to get the feeling that the movie could've made a better selection of narrative choices from the 71 years worth of Green Lantern stories that are available. Another problem with the movie is that it tries to shoehorn two themes that are common in superhero origin movies that don't fit well into the Green Lantern origin story: the themes of friends becoming enemies and the unresolved tensions and intergenerational conflicts between fathers and their children. These themes have be used effectively in Marvel superhero movies (particularly in the Spider-Man and Iron Man movies, as well as Ang Lee's Hulk), but they feel forced in Green Lantern. For example:
* The second villain in Green Lantern is Dr. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who is infected by Parallax and mutates into a deformed, vengeful monster with telekinetic abilities. The movie insinuates that there's a personal connection between the characters of Jordan and Hammond, suggesting that they were once friends. I suppose that this plot thread was inserted to maximize the dramatic effect in the final confrontation between the mutated Hammond and the Green Lantern-ized Jordan, but it doesn't add anything to the action.
* Each of the main human characters has a father figure who exerts some kind of dominant influence in their lives. Jordan is haunted by the death of his test pilot father, Martin Jordan (Jon Tenney), Hammond lives under the thumb of his father, Senator Robert Hammond (Tim Robbins), and Jordan's love interest Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) still works in the corporation owned by her father, Carl Ferris (Jay O. Sanders). Whatever point that was meant to be served by having all of these fathers present in the movie's plot remains a mystery to me. In fact, there's a brief scene in Green Lantern involving Jordan, Hammond and Sen. Hammond that's very similar to a scene in the first Spider-Man movie that involved Peter Parker, Harry Osborn and Harry's father Norman, but it has neither the dramatic effect nor narrative purpose as its predecessor.
Shortcomings aside, Green Lantern has much going in its favor. It provides a fantastic, live-action version of the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians that would have been impossible without CGI effects. As superhero powers go, the ones granted by the power rings are tailor-made for CGI special effects, which allow for all sorts of ring-generated artifacts to appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. While the narrative logic about the power rings, the nature of will versus fear, and the significance of the colors of green and yellow may sound a bit loopy to newcomers, it accurately explains how power works within the Green Lantern narrative world and its metaphorical relation to the real world. Along those lines, the scene where Sinestro (Mark Strong) makes his case to the Guardians that they should use the power of fear to fight against Parallax reminded me of the hype surrounding the use of "Shock and Awe" tactics in the mishandled 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Perhaps to two most important things that benefit Green Lantern are its direction by Martin Campbell and Ryan Reynolds' performance as Hal Jordan. Campbell's experience with the James Bond and Zorro franchises have clearly influenced his direction of this movie, which seamlessly assembles heavy CGI effects, intense action sequences and self-aware humor into a thrilling, funny and well-paced movie. Reynolds' performance as Jordan goes a long way towards selling the movie: He makes Jordan a relatable character, someone who hides his insecurities under a thin veneer of daredevil bravado and yet can rise above that to become what he needs to be to defeat Parallax. I'll even go so far as to say that without Campbell and Reynolds, Green Lantern could have easily fallen into the category of superhero movies that were ambitious in attempt yet ultimately disappointing and forgettable, movies such as The Shadow, Superman Returns, and the Tim Story-helmed Fantastic Four movies.
In comparison to the other superhero movies of this summer, I think Green Lantern falls somewhere in between Thor and X-Men: First Class. While it's not as good as Thor, it's more fun--and much less frustrating--than X-Men: First Class. It should also be said that the 3D effects in Green Lantern exceed those used in the 3D version of Thor. Both movies were converted from 2D to 3D in post-production, but Green Lantern is the better 3D experience of the two.