Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Lantern: Slightly diminished glow

Green Lantern (2011) • View trailer for Green Lantern
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang 

Forget about the ring; Green Lantern’s greatest super power may be the ability to save his own movie.

Which is to say, Warner Bros. owes a huge debt to Ryan Reynolds, whose charisma and cheerful, naughty-boy charm masks several sins.
After being transported across the universe and slapped into his slick green suit,
Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds, right) hopes that the compassionate Tomar-Re, left,
will be his new "ring instructor." But no, that assignment falls to the much
larger and intimidating Kilowog.

The biggest problem is a clumsy script that tries to accomplish too much, and winds up with too little: too little emotional resonance, too little time spent with plot chapters that should have been given more weight. Too many secondary characters treated casually; too many details handled sloppily.

Savvy credits watchers will raise a skeptical eyebrow at the presence of four screenwriters — Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg — which invariably points to a script that has been fine-tuned by committee and target demographics, rather than narrative clarity and artistic consistency.

I recognize the problem: The first entry in any superhero franchise arrives with the burden of necessary back-story ... often dialogue-heavy, and at odds with the cataclysmic battles that viewers desire. That problem is magnified here, because Green Lantern has more back-story than most: a complicated and cleverly devised reason for why a cocky Earth man gets tagged to join an elite force of inter-stellar space cops.

All this must be explained, before our hero’s actions can be placed in the proper context. Unfortunately, in an effort to present all this information, sidebar character development gets abandoned.

But that’s not the sole issue. Although director Martin Campbell has plenty of action epics in his résumé — two James Bonds entries, two Zorro adventures — he’s clearly not as comfortable with the quite different nuances involved when heroes and villains owe most (all?) of their existence to special effects. Most of the skirmishes here are little more than rock-’em, sock-’em slug-fests involving plenty of ring- or telekinetically manipulated furniture, lab equipment and handy military hardware, vehicles and planes.

At times, you’ll wonder if we’ve slipped into an installment of the X-Men film franchise.

James Newton Howard’s score doesn’t help; it’s all loud-loud-loud orchestral crashes and smashes, with few nuances to help sell quieter scenes.

Finally, the film suffers from a major casting hiccup: Blake Lively is simply wrong as Carol Ferris, the on again/off again girlfriend and full-time colleague/sorta boss of brash test pilot Hal Jordan (Reynolds). For starters, the notion that she, too, is a test pilot ... is utterly laughable.

Additionally, Lively’s line readings during the first argument between Hal and Carol are atrocious, and the lines themselves are pretty dismal. Lively is too much a product of the breathy melodrama she handles so well on television’s Gossip Girl and the two Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies. For that matter, she also delivered a persuasive job as the desperate, dead-end gal pal in last year’s The Town.

But Lively never seems to really believe the role she inhabits here; one gets the impression that she retreats to a corner, after every take, and snickers over the idiocy of the line she just spoke. A quick comparison to Natalie Portman (Thor) or Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man) reveals just how much Lively pales in comparison.


Following a truly silly jet fighter skirmish designed to demonstrate how Hal will “cheat” in order to defeat a pair of computer-controlled enemies — destroying an expensive jet in the process, and incurring Carol’s wrath — Hal gets a token scene of “family bonding time” when he arrives late at his young nephew’s birthday party. We never again see Hal’s sibling(s) or this nephew; they simply vanish, having served the purpose of further establishing Hal’s carelessness with The People In His Life.

Elsewhere, veteran Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) narrowly escapes a deep-space skirmish with a monstrous evil entity dubbed Parallax. Mortally wounded, Abin Sur crash-lands on Earth and directs his power ring to seek out a worthy replacement. Moments later, Hal is snatched by a sphere of green energy and whisked to Abin Sur’s side, just in time to hear a few words before the extra-terrestrial dies.

Although he now possesses the power ring and its companion green battery, Hal hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with either.

Across the universe, on the planet Oa — home of the blue-skinned Guardians, founders of the Green Lantern Corps — the valiant Sinestro (Mark Strong) has learned that Parallax has killed numerous members of the corps, while also destroying entire populations, growing ever stronger along the way. This threat must be defeated, before it has a chance to reach Oa.

Back on Earth, Abin Sur’s body has been found and taken to a super-secret military lab, where “handler” Amanda Waller (Angela Bassett) asks reclusive xenobiologist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) to conduct an autopsy. During this process, Hector is infected by some of the yellow energy with which Parallax defeated Abin Sur; the results soon won’t be pretty.

Hal, meanwhile, accidentally activates the ring; now operational, it whisks him to Oa, where he’s poked, prodded, probed and finally granted the protective uniform of the Green Lantern Corps. Training follows next: a “boot camp” session with other-worldly ring instructors Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan) and Tomar-Re (voiced by Geoffrey Rush). Sinestro, injecting himself into this process, humiliates Hal in ring combat and sneers that Earthmen are weak and without sufficient will.

This, by the way, is what powers all the Green Lanterns and their rings: the carefully applied force of will, visualized here as glowing green energy, which allows the wielder to fabricate anything the mind can imagine. But these defensive or offensives constructs are only as powerful as the user’s mental focus, and they disappear when the ring-slinger’s thoughts turn elsewhere.

(Thus, later, the lovely green necklace that Hal fabricates around Carol’s neck vanishes the moment he stops thinking about it. Not much of a gift, then...)

Alternatively, Parallax feeds on fear, which emerges from all living beings as a yellow glow. A Green Lantern with insufficient focus and strength of will thus is vulnerable to the yellow force that emanates from Parallax: a more reasonable scenario than the original comic book explanation, back in 1959, that Hal Jordan’s green-glowing power ring had no effect on “anything yellow.”

Hector Hammond eventually becomes a threat of his own, and he’s mentally linked to Parallax, which draws that hideous creature to Earth; Hal, chastened by Sinestro’s contempt, has abandoned his training.

“It’s what I do best,” Hal laments to Carol, who immediately recognizes him beneath the mask. “Walking away.”

That’s one of this film’s best dialogue exchanges, by the way. Of course Carol would know Hal, and her line to that effect pokes gentle fun at the notion that Lois Lane wouldn’t recognize Superman as Clark Kent, simply because of the glasses and a missing spit-curl.

Sadly, this script offers few scenes with even that much emotional weight, instead wasting its time with far too many extraneous details. We could have spent — and enjoyed — 15 or 20 minutes with Hal, Kilowog and Tomar-Re back on Oa, before Hal quits in discouragement ... but no, the “training” apparently concludes after Sinestro’s intervention. Instead, we suffer through the tedious and unnecessary relationship between Hector and his father (Tim Robbins), who happens to be the guiding U.S. senatorial hand behind the team investigating Abin Sur’s body.

Angela Bassett’s character also is woefully underdeveloped; she’s a strong actor and deserves much better than this film grants her. And it would be nice to know more about Thomas Kalmaku (Taika Waititi), apparently Hal’s one and only true friend.

Fortunately, even amazingly, Reynolds holds everything together. After the clumsiness of the first few scenes — not his fault — Reynolds settles into the role and delivers the necessary blend of smug overconfidence and concealed angst. He also demonstrates the kid-in-a-candy-shop enthusiasm one would expect from a guy suddenly granted the ability to materialize anything his mind concocts; that’s fun, as well.

And while Hal’s “big secret” — the doubt that plagues him — is rather corny, Reynolds makes it credible. Hal isn’t solely smart-assed arrogance; he turns on quiet dignity when required. As I’ve already said, Reynolds’ Green Lantern — and Hal Jordan — pretty much save the day, in all sorts of ways.

The special-effects work is impressive; I continue to marvel at the way entire alien worlds and environments — in this case, Oa — can be fabricated so believably. And Parallax is an impressively horrifying enemy: far too malignant and powerful to be called a mere “villain.” This is evil as a force of nature: definitely the stuff of nightmares ... which, as it’s a fear-consuming entity, is precisely the point.

This film’s lapses notwithstanding, it’s a mostly engaging roller coaster ride: in other words, a suitable summer action epic. Plans clearly are afoot for a sequel; longtime comic book fans will want to look for an eyeblink appearance by John Stewart (Nick Jones), and do remain in your seats as the closing credits appear, for an essential — albeit completely anticipated — epilogue designed to set up the next adventure.

Given the cheers of appreciation that greeted this film during Wednesday evening’s preview screening, that second adventure seems a certainty.

At which point, one hopes, some of the more glaring structural flaws can be fixed.

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