Of the plethora of superhero movies coming out this summer, I had the lowest expectations for Green Lantern. The marketing bounced back and forth between good and bad trailers so often I was convinced the movie would be a disaster. Strange aliens, outer space, a giant cloud taking over a city? Could even action maven Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale, Mask of Zorro) pull this all together into a coherent and interesting movie? Surprisingly, Green Lantern is far from a catastrophe. It’s certainly not transcendent, but it’s imminently watchable entertaining summer fare that surpassed expectations.
Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Robbins, Mark Strong
After a ton of exposition setting up the history of a group of intergalactic warriors known as the Green Lantern Corps, the film whips through space and shows the demise of Abin Sur, the Corps' best soldier who crashes on earth and instructs his energy ring to find a worthy successor. Enter Hal Jordan (Reynolds), a test pilot for Ferris Industries with a chip on his shoulder. See, his old man was also a pilot and went down in flames, so he's cocky, brash, arrogant - you know the type. Sound a bit like Top Gun? The comparisons don't stop there. A flight simulation early in the movie was so close to Tony Scott's iconic imagery that the filmmakers may as well have inserted footage directly from Tom Cruise's dogfight sequences into Green Lantern and called it a day.
And though this movie has shades of "we've seen this before," it eventually goes to some interesting places. Hailed as a "space opera" since its inception, the film lives up to that description by following our newly-minted hero to a planet called Oa. Home to other green lantern members - including the Guardians of the Universe and Sinestro (Mark Strong), the hardass leader of the Corps - Oa is a home base for Hal Jordan as he trains under the tutelage of a hulking alien named Kilowog (voice of Michael Clarke Duncan). And while the "power gaining/training" sequences in superhero films are almost always the most plodding plot points, this one is surprisingly cool. The Green Lanterns (Hal Jordan is the only human, but there are thousands of others across the universe) harness the energy of willpower, and their rings allow them to create whatever their minds can imagine. So in this training sequence, what should have been a fairly boring segment of the movie as we wait for Hal to fight the real bad guys was actually entertaining; by setting up they can create anything from their minds, the audience never quite knows exactly what's going to be created, so we're always at least a bit surprised with what we see (which is more than some superhero movies can say).
The plot details aren't worth hashing out here - it essentially boils down to an intergalactic war between willpower and fear - but Martin Campbell and the four screenwriters are able to take a difficult premise and condense it into easy-to-digest summer entertainment. You probably won't see anyone referring to Green Lantern as "the greatest superhero movie since The Dark Knight" (as some did with X-Men: First Class), but it's far better than it has any right to be. Why? Ryan Reynolds. The man is just so damn charming, it's impossible not to root for him. I think he may be the perfect mainstream movie star. Those who witnessed the rise of Tom Cruise may disagree, but I think Reynolds has more charisma and screen presence than Cruise, one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
Blake Lively, on the other hand, has none of Reynolds’ charm or comic timing. As Carol Ferris, she’s Jordan’s childhood sweetheart; though the character is ostensibly supposed to be a strong powerful female figure, she’s basically just the same old love interest we’ve seen time and time again. Don’t get me wrong - she’s serviceable in the role, but she doesn’t elevate the material nearly as much (or as effortlessly) as Reynolds. She stands around and looks hot, providing the occasional “I’m disappointed in you” speech to our hero to spur him into action.
The rest of the cast is mostly wasted: the voices of Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan are used briefly during the training scenes on Oa, and the versatile Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, RockNRolla) scowls his way through about 15 minutes of screen time. Perennial favorite Peter Sarsgaard does some interesting work as scientist Hector Hammond. While examining the body of Abin Sur, Hammond becomes infected with a part of the Parallax consciousness, allowing him to read minds but unfortunately expanding his head to disgustingly monstrous proportions. Add to this the fact that Hammond has been jilted by Carol Ferris since childhood in favor of Hal Jordan, and you’ve got a motive for vengeance. Academy Award winner Tim Robbins is perhaps the most underused of all, playing a politician that could have been played by just about any male actor with a pulse. My roommate brought up a good point in our post-viewing discussion: he was hoping Robbins would provide the type of gravitas that Jeff Bridges brought to the role of Obidiah Stane back in the first Iron Man film, but sadly that character wasn’t given the opportunity.
To me, the most impressive aspect of Green Lantern is the disparity between the visual effects in the trailers and the finished effects in the movie. On many a GeekTyrant podcast, my cohorts and I discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Reynolds’ suit, a completely CGI creation. It works much better than early looks indicated, though the mask is still the most laughable aspect of the costume (and the film thankfully addresses this). Parallax, the villainous cloud that uses fear to consume souls - and that’s not a joke, by the way - is rendered beautifully. Never has an evil space cloud looked so good. Scenes in which it rampages through a city looked cheesy in the trailers, but work fairly well in context. Even the 3D is effective, truly utilizing the vastness of space to enhance the experience and giving the audience a sense of distance that was lacking even in the other world-spanning superhero movie released earlier this summer, Marvel’s Thor.
I’d imagine any film version of Green Lantern was always fighting an uphill battle between balancing the comic book lore for fans and spreading the appeal to a wide audience, and though I still hold to my beliefs that Ryan Reynolds would have been a much better Wally West (aka The Flash) than Hal Jordan, I believe Martin Campbell was able to use him to strike that balance to a successful degree. The action is fun and interesting to watch, the heart of the story is straightforward, but there are enough visual flairs in place to separate it from the seemingly never-ending stream of superhero films we’ve been getting since Singer breathed new life into the genre with X-Men back in 2000. This is as mainstream a version of this story as we’ll get, but for fans of the character (and fans of this genre in general), I imagine that will be enough. Until next time...