Saturday, April 07, 2012

Green Lantern

Green Lantern (3/5)

Over the last decade, the summer and holiday months have been littered with the cast off remains of failed franchises.  Eager for the consistent influx of cash that popular series like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Twilight bring in over the course of years, or even decades, studios have been caught counting their chickens long before they have hatched, hoping that whatever rebooted 80s cartoon, young adult novel, or underused superhero will leaven the strain of actually producing new material.  Some of these failures have taken on the veneer of cult success (I would argue this in the case of the Wachowski’s Speed Racer or Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer), where others fail to live up to the promise of their source material (such as Jonah Hex or The Golden Compass), and still others should never have been put into production in the first place (Prince of Persia, Battlefield Earth).  And while there have been rumors of a Green Lantern sequel, I have the feeling that the first film’s poor showing at the box office will dissuade the bean counters from risking another go at DC’s space cop.  And that’s a shame, not because the first film was such a triumph, but because, despite plenty of flaws, there’s a lot of potential in the Green Lantern, even if much of it is squandered by the movie’s end.

I watched Green Lantern after reading some damning reviews, so imagine my surprise when, for at least the first half of the film, the movie turned out to be an engaging balance of sci-fi spectacle and carefully executed character building.  We begin the film in the far reaches of space where some alien astronauts stumble upon a trapped entity known as Parallax who feeds on these victims and escapes.  Parallax proceeds to chase down and mortally wound the Green Lantern who had trapped him in the first place, Abin Sur.  Sur manages to escape from Parallax and crash land on Earth where he, knowing how little time he has left, instructs his ring, the source of a Green Lantern’s power, to find a suitable replacement. 

The ring eventually chooses Hal Jordan, a test pilot for experimental aircraft.  Hal’s portrayed as a womanizer whose talents as a pilot far outstrip his discipline.  He works for Ferris Aircraft and has some romantic history with the boss’s daughter, Carol Ferris, who also happens to balance her career helping run the family business with her roles as a test pilot along with Hal.  The two must run a demonstration for the government in hopes that Uncle Sam will buy their non-manned fighter pilot drones (take that China!).  While the ultimate goal of this demonstration is to show how good the drones are, Hal decides to break the rules of engagement by taking his jet much higher than permitted, which allows him to take out the drones, but also forces him to crash his plane in the process.  Naturally, Carol is upset when Hal not only uncovers flaws in their product but also trashes a multi-million dollar piece of equipment. 

Hal is played by Ryan Reynolds, who got his start as a cartoony wiseass in sitcoms and teen comedies but has since attempted to break his way into marginally more serious action work, and he has spent years trying to prove himself as a potential blockbuster lead.  Here his ability to crack a joke not only serves to accentuate his character’s freewheeling nature, but also helps ground the more absurdist aspects of a comic book character who was created fifty years ago.  The movie manages to be funny without becoming jokey.  Reynolds also happens to have great chemistry with love interest Carol Ferris, played by Blake Lively.  The two of them have a surprisingly emotionally complicated scene at a local bar for pilots that could have been sliced into a more dramatic film without much trouble.  The central love story reminded me of the scenes in another film by directors Martin Campbell, the James Bond reboot Casino Royale, whose romance between Bond and Vesper served as the heart of the film. 

It’s not long after he downs the company jet that Hal is swept away by Abin Sur’s ring and taken to the crash site of Sur’s escape pod where the dying alien tells him how to use the ring.  After figuring out the basics Hal is whisked away to the planet Oa, the headquarters of the Guardians, a race of blue aliens who forged the Green Lantern rings in order to form the Green Lantern Corps, a group tasked with policing the entire universe.  The planet Oa is beautifully filmed, a strange mixture of darkened crags, smooth surfaces of technology, and tasteful waves of color.  It is as if an aurora borealis went off in an Apple store after hours.  Here Hal learns of the history of the Green Lanterns and begins his training with Kilowog, a beast of an alien with the face of a pig, the body of a brick wall, and the voice, conveniently enough, of Michael Clark Duncan. 

It’s at this point in the movie where I excitedly awaited for the film to really take off.  Until now there had been some exciting action and nice character work.  Hal had been firmly established as a screw up, adrift in life, hoping for something bigger, and now that fate has handed him the chance to join the Green Lantern Corps, he presumably has a chance to right his course in life.  But in an incredibly contrived moment, he decides that he’s not up to snuff, quits the corps and returns to Earth (although, strangely enough, he is allowed to keep the ring).  Instead of the epic space opera I was expecting, the filmmakers decides on something far more quotidian: a superhero movie.  The rest of the film goes through the usual superhero motions: the main character reveals himself to the public by bravely saving hundreds of people and afterwards visits the love interest/damsel in distress.  Green Lantern is a decidedly schizophrenic movie.  Where the first half of the film provides the perfect set up for the “hero’s journey,” a story about one character being plucked from the mundane world and lifted into an exciting realm of adventure, the second half of the film seems content on playing superhero connect the dots.  There is even a second villain, a scientist who becomes infected by Parallax, who is obviously there to make sure the action doesn’t stray too far from Earth. 

I’m convinced that the studio didn’t really know what they had with the Green Lantern.  Unlike Batman, Spider-Man, or even Superman, the Green Lantern Corps lends itself to interplanetary superheroics more in the vein of Star Wars and Flash Gordon than Iron Man.  But this is also what makes the character exciting.  Where we have seen the basic outline of a superhero movie time and again, Green Lantern offers the chance of more science fiction tropes, which could potentially differentiate him from the glut of other superhero movies.  Instead of shying away from the imaginatively bizarre, the filmmakers should have embraced the alien aspects of the Green Lantern mythos.  Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Green Lantern is that it represents a missed opportunity.  The few moments we spend in space are exciting because of their promise of the weird, and because they are one of the few images of space made by people who have actually looked at photographs from the Hubble Telescope.  Instead of peregrine flights of fancy, the movie clings tight to formula, and suffered for it, both artistically and at the box office.

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