If one were to compare this summer’s crop of superhero movies to a playground, “Green Lantern” would be the seesaw, teetering back and forth between incredible highs and seat-jarring lows. The first theatrical superhero movie to be released by DC Entertainment and Warner Brothers Pictures this year, “Green Lantern” makes a noble attempt to translate the complex comic book mythology to the big screen, ultimately falling short not because it leaves things out but because it tries too hard to stuff every relevant detail in.
Director Martin Campbell (of James Bond “Casino Royale” fame) kicks off the film with a long, winding voice-over juxtaposed to sweeping shots of alien worlds and Green Lantern Corps members. With these first five minutes, the tone is set for the entire movie: great visuals, interesting ideas and characters, but too much information provided far too quickly. In rapid fire succession, the voice-over plows through who the Guardians are, how they harnessed the Green power of will, the formation of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps, the attempt to harness the Yellow power of fear and the defeat of the Yellow Entity known as Parallax. The narrator barely has time to breathe before an onscreen group of aliens accidentally free Parallax again, triggering the events of the rest of the movie.
From there, “Green Lantern” settles into an unwieldy and uneven origin story, rocketing back and forth between Earth and Oa, home of the Corps. Audiences are quickly introduced to cocky pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) as he royally screws up his employers’, Ferris Air, test demonstration of new military planes. His arrogant actions fail to impress anyone but his pal Thomas (Taika Waititi), and Hal gets a dressing down by his love interest, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). Soon after, the Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) crashes on Earth after being attacked by Parallax and gives Hal the Green Lantern ring. As Hal begins to learn the ins and outs of his powers, a new subplot is introduced when Earth scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) becomes accidentally infected with the Yellow power of Parallax.
All storylines collide when Hal is finally summoned to Oa and brought up to speed on the Corps and the threat of Parallax, meeting his future nemesis Sinestro (Mark Strong) and engaging in what has to be film history’s shortest training sequence. At this point, it is pretty clear what the ultimate goal for Hal will be as the film sets up Hector and Parallax as the main villains threatening Earth and the rest of the universe.
Many of the same questions people had of “Thor,” asking whether or not a mainstream audience will embrace a movie half-set on a quasi-mystical alien world have also dogged “Green Lantern,” drawing a comparison between the two that is unfortunately detrimental to the latter. While Oa looks amazing, the movie never develops the Corps beyond broad strokes. There simply is not enough screen time given to the planet to delve into the incredibly complicated Corps members introduced onscreen — characters like Strong’s refined Sinestro, Geoffrey Rush’s gentle Tomar-Re or Michael Clarke Duncan’s gruff and tough Kilowog.
This brings us to the film’s greatest asset: its cast. Reynolds is absolutely charming as Hal Jordan. He plays the conflicted Hal with perfect believability, showing an ability to switch between charismatic bad boy and sensitive lost guy within the blink of an eye. Furthermore, he’s funny; under his hands, Hal Jordan transforms from the staid and serious comic book character into a guys’ guy, someone you’d swap stories over a couple of beers with. His rapport with Mark Strong as Sinestro is incredibly powerful — the minute they lock eyes, the audience can feel the love-hate relationship cementing. Strong delivers an equally admirable performance, imbuing Sinestro with quiet dignity and a whiff of desperation as he tries to stop Parallax.
Peter Sarsgaard steals every single scene he’s in as Hector Hammond, whether creepily smelling Blake Lively’s hair or chuckling to himself as his forehead swells to grotesque proportions. Sarsgaard also manages to give the character a real measure of sympathy; compared to Parallax and Hector’s awful father (played by Tim Robbins at his sleaziest), Hector’s not really a bad guy, just pathetic. Quite honestly, in 105 minutes of movie, Sarsgaard creates a Hector Hammond more interesting than his comic book counterpart. In fact, much of the cast manages to elevate their characters, making them as compelling if not more than the source material they spring from.
Unfortunately, the glaring exception is Blake Lively, who is simply atrocious as businesswoman/pilot Carol Ferris. Delivering every line as if she is on the verge of tears, Lively plods around screen, throwing dramatic faces and sullen stares in Hal’s direction. Every now and then a good performance is startled out of her (the first time she meets Hal as Green Lantern on her balcony springs to mind), but overall she is utterly miscast, way too young to be believable as Hal’s childhood friend and too entrenched in her angsty teen-drama acting to hold her own against her more talented co-stars.
“Green Lantern’s” special effects are another high point, although they too suffer from periodic Lively-levels of bad. Parallax looks phenomenal, a swirling mass of smoke and bones — there’s no doubt for a second that this creature is the universes’ greatest threat. Hector’s prosthetic head is swollen enough to satisfy even the most demanding comic fan with Sarsgaard enjoyably reveling in the sweaty grossness of his expanding cranium. However, the alien characters that make up the Corps waiver between looking impressive and like a cartoonish CGI mess, often within the same scene. And in an unfortunate example of comic art not translating to the big screen, Hal’s ring constructs are as unnecessarily complicated as the plot, green Rube Goldberg machines that might have passed muster if the film didn’t supply the counterpoint of Hector’s powers. Hal spends most of his time creating elaborate guns to take on bad guys; Hector just smashes people through walls, but because it is happening in real time with real practical effects, it is immediately more engaging. The only truly fun construct occurs in the middle of the movie when Hal transforms a runaway helicopter into a racecar, but like all good scenes in “Green Lantern,” it ends too soon and he’s back to making uninspired swords and walls for the rest of the film.
Ultimately, the problem with “Green Lantern” is not that it’s a bad movie — it’s two good movies haphazardly rammed together. On its own, the Hector Hammond plot would have sufficed for an origin story just as the greater Parallax story would have made for a fantastic sequel. It is as if the film makers were afraid a Green Lantern origin story would tank before they got to make a follow-up, so they decided to do both in one sitting. The film is unable to fully develop plot, characters or setting as it spends its entire time jumping around the two planets, constantly introducing characters audiences never see again, at breakneck speed. The scene between Hal and his nephew is genuinely touching — and then we never see the kid again. Kilowog and Tomar-Re are powerfully established in the short time they have onscreen, but once their minute-long training scene with Hal is over, they disappear back into the Corps for the remainder of the movie. In fact, Jordan spends so little time interacting with the Corps that his great dramatic moment, when he finally addresses the Guardians, falls flat, as it is totally unearned.
If that’s not enough, the minute audiences have a handle on what niche characters inhabit in the movie universe, “Green Lantern” throws a curveball. Do people really need to know that Hector Hammond is childhood pals with Hal and Carol when that detail comes out of nowhere over halfway through the movie? Even for fans of the comics, “Green Lantern” presents a bewildering amount of information to absorb. It is hard to imagine mainstream audiences swallowing any of the Lantern mythos, or understanding it. The movie is a “Where’s Waldo” of comic book references, too complicated to be untangled in one sitting by anyone not intimately familiar with recent comics continuity.
Which is a shame, because under the sloppy, messy and completely bewildering plot is a genuinely entertaining movie. Watching Hal learn how to control his powers is fun; watching Hector devolve into a grotesque, sweaty-noggin villain is enthralling. Parallax and Hector make great bad guys and the film’s treatment of its characters is only frustrating because they spend so little time with them. A truly good summer blockbuster shines through this messy info-dump of a movie, and despite numerous flaws, the action is genuinely enjoyable. While “Green Lantern” does not stack up to the standards for superhero movies set by “Iron Man” and “Batman Begins,” Green Lantern/Geoff Johns fans will get a thrill from the movie’s take on the comic book character.
Ultimately, “Green Lantern” is worth watching on the big screen for the special effects if nothing else — but don’t be surprised when the movie fails to deliver on its epic premise.
“Green Lantern” opens in theaters nationwide June 17