Ryan Reynolds keeps comparing Green Lantern, out today, to the original Star Wars. As if it's the same kind of fun thrill-ride, with the same relatable heroic arc, swashbuckling and Han Solo-esque swagger.
But actually, Green Lantern is more like the Star Wars prequels: dull, soulless and smothered with computerized blandness. Not to mention a "Lake of Naboo"-style romance and dull character conflicts. (But at least there's no Jar-Jar.)
In fact, you can't watch Green Lantern without wondering if a movie like the original Star Wars could even get made today, in this culture of bland overproduced franchise pictures. Green Lantern is a movie-length seminar on how not to be the next Star Wars.
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Ryan Reynolds' disembodied face spends large chunks of Green Lantern floating around in an ocean of computer-animated cheese. Because Reynolds' face tells the entire story, he works overtime to try and convey what's actually going on. Reynolds' face looks freaked out, or determined, or sometimes kind of constipated, as he tries to summon up reserves of willpower.
And the battle between Hal Jordan and the film's villain, a sentient cloud named Parallax, is largely psychological. Parallax is a creature of fear, so Hal has to defeat the monster by getting past his own emotional hangups. This is kind of hard to convey on the screen, and it doesn't help that the green power of Hal's ring often comes across as a collection of abstract computer polygons, against a background of other computer polygons. The whole thing feels like a really bad group therapy session where someone spiked the water cooler with magic mushrooms.
If I had to sum up Green Lantern in one phrase, it would be: "Abstract art about daddy issues."
And wow, there are a lot of daddy issues in this movie. It's like six seasons of Lost in one two-hour movie. In a nutshell, Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is a hotshot pilot who's basically still just a boy in a man's body. (Hal is a bit more immature than I remember him being in the comics, where he's more of a womanizing straight arrow.) We learn, early on, that Hal's dad was also a fighter pilot, who crashed his plane in a freak accident. Ever since then, Hal's been a scared little boy inside, despite his outward swagger. (Actually, Hal's "outward swagger" consists of telegraphing "I'm a scared little boy inside.")
So Hal fears that he can never live up to his dad's legacy, or else maybe that he'll crash and burn like his dad did. It's not really clear. Meanwhile, Hal's on-and-off girlfriend is also his boss, Carol Ferris, another hotshot pilot who is stepping up to run her dad's company. She also has a dad who puts lots of pressure on her, but she seems mostly up to it. (But Carol has the personality of a piece of arugula, so her daddy issues are mostly left to the imagination.)
And then there's Hal's friend, Hector Hammond, a dweeby scientist whose dad is an important senator (Tim Robbins). Hector's always been a disappointment to his rich, powerful alpha-male dad, who wishes he had a son like Hal instead. When an alien crash lands on Earth, Senator Dad pulls strings to get Hector the job of autopsying the creature – solo! – and Hector gets infected by a piece of the yellow fart monster, Parallax. This gives Hector telepathic powers, and suddenly he can hear his dad's mean thoughts about him. This is enough to make anybody freak out.
Honestly, whenever someone talks about overcoming their fear in this movie, you can just mentally substitute "daddy issues" for "fear." Because all of the characters' fears come back to unfinished business with Dad. The stuff about Hal and Carol's dads does come from the comics, but I think Hector's dad is new.
That crashed alien is a member of an intergalactic police force, the Green Lantern Corps, and Hal gets chosen as his replacement. Every member of the Corps gets a ring that can create anything you can see in your mind, plus a shiny skin-tight green uniform. Before too long, Hal is whisked away to the planet Oa, where he meets a ton of aliens and gets indoctrinated into the complicated backstory of the Green Lanterns and what it takes to be a green defender of the universe.
It's hard to imagine a story that has more wish-fulfillment stuffed into it than Green Lantern. This lucky guy gets chosen, out of all of us, to have this amazing ring that can do anything. And he finds out that he's a member of the coolest organization in the entire universe. He says a cool poem ("oath") to activate his powers, and almost nobody knows that plain old Hal Jordan is this mysterious all-powerful hero. It's basically the purest, most escapist heroic fantasy ever.
It would take a lot of work to make something so pure and beautiful into a boring movie, devoid of fun or exhilaration. But Green Lantern rolls up its green sleeves and works hard.
Like the Star Wars prequels, Green Lantern is awash in overcomplicated mythos and aliens debating stuff that will be meaningless to most audience members. And like the prequels, this film is so full of greenscreened clutter at times, you start tuning it out. But unlike the prequels, this film is low on thrills, especially in its final act. There's nothing on the level of the final duel with Darth Maul in this film.
I had really lowered my expectations by the time I went to see Green Lantern the other night, thanks to some less-than-glowing early reviews. I was all set for it to be a dumb action movie, along the lines of the first Transformers, and I was fine with that. But unfortunately, it may not be possible to lower your expectations enough to enjoy this movie.
I think the main problem is that Green Lantern's energy-based powers work really well on the comic-book page, but it's hard to translate them to the screen. Not just visually – we do see Hal making green shapes, like the big gun you've seen in the trailers – but viscerally. I think it's partly because most of the time when we see Hal using his power, it's a computer-generated effect against a computer background. So it just looks like a bunch of CG effects bouncing off each other. Add to that the somewhat confusing decision to make the movie's main villain a big sentient cloud, and you're left with a film that hinges on fluffy green blobs against fluffy yellow blobs. And like I said earlier, Hal's costume is CG along with the backgrounds, so his head just floats there in the middle of a CG world.
So it's not surprising the action is kind of meh.
But it's still sad – director Martin Campbell was responsible for Casino Royale, which didn't just revitalize James Bond but also helped restore my faith in spy action movies generally. Casino Royale was the first Bond movie in a generation that left you feeling as though James Bond lives in our world, and all of his amazing, super-violent exploits felt way more visceral and thrilling as a result. Here, Campbell embraces the cartoony feel of the Lantern comics, but is unable to create a fun cartoon. If anything, Lantern is too solemn and leaden.
Oh, and the movie is full of plot holes, and the more characters stand around explaining stuff to each other, the less sense any of it actually makes. But if this movie was doing its job right, you wouldn't care if it made sense or not.
And there's sort of a weird metatextual subtext to all the daddy issues in the movie. We keep seeing that the earlier generation was straightforward and self-confident. The generation that spawned Hal Jordan's dad and Senator Hammond was a bunch of square-jawed men who got the job done. And they were also the generation that gave us awesome 1980s action movies, in which fight scenes were bloody and brilliant. Instead of feeling bad about the feelings of inadequacy these men have bequeathed to their descendants, you can't help sharing the older generation's disappointment with this new gang of wannabe heroes after watching the film.