When I was nine years old and the target audience for comic books, I had the unfortunate pleasure of not having access to many, living in the pop-culture backwaters of Muscat. India was not much better, though a trickle of used super hero comics showed up now and then, and I’d gladly scoop up any and all that I could get my hands on. This led to me reading an assortment of single issues, fragments of stories featuring well-known heroes like Superman and Spider-Man; strange creatures well-beyond my reading age like Swamp Thing and John Constantine; and the mysterious, imaginative and very cool Green Lantern corps.
It was on a summer vacation trip to Bangalore that I encountered, in a sprawling bookstore, a modest collection of comics, and tucked between the My Little Pony colouring books and Amar Chitra Katha, was a thick paperback with the words Emerald Dawn on its spine. I didn’t know it when I picked that book up, but I was about to embark on a love affair with this sprawling subset of the DC Universe. By the next day I think I’d read the entire graphic novel twice, and I was reeling. It was the first epic super hero story I’d read, and it made quite the impression.
That I have waited nearly twenty years for a Green Lantern movie is no understatement, and while it pleases me no end to be able to say that one does finally exist, it also pains me to report — possibly to my nine year old self — that it was not worth the wait.
Emerald Dawn was a modern retelling (for the 1980s) of the origins of Hal Jordan, Green Lantern of Earth, and this movie also tells that tale, albeit updated and incorporating newer themes & threads of the Green Lantern mythos.
Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a cocky, irresponsible yet seemingly gifted test pilot, who’s crippled by fears associated with his father’s death in a plane crash. Meanwhile, across the universe, the Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) is mortally wounded by an embodiment of fear itself, Parallax. Fleeing & crashing on Earth, the alien orders the ring to find and bring him his successor before he dies, which turns out to be Jordan.
Hal soon discovers the awesome power of the ring — it can manifest the will of the user in any form he can imagine — and Jordan is whisked away to Oa, home of the Green Lantern corps, for his indoctrination into the order. Meanwhile, reclusive genius Dr. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is called in by a shadowy government agency to perform the autopsy on Abin Sur’s corpse. But Parallax still dwells in the wounds of Abin Sur, and its power infects the doctor with grotesque consequences.
What this origin story lacks, that Emerald Dawn got right, is any sense of true growth for Hal Jordan. He’s a screw-up, sure, but only in the most anemic of ways. The fear that drives Hal — and the overcoming of it — is just lost in this telling. The entire movie spends time hammering in the theme of fear vs will, weakness vs courage, but does so in such broad and empty ways, that one wonders if half the lines were cribbed off a cheap motivational greeting card.
Not that cheesy, cliched dialogue is the script’s only problem. Clearly the writers have much confusion with the cardinal writing rule, “Show, don’t tell.” If someone’s supposed to be a hotshot pilot or an awesome badass, you’ll bet that every other character in the scene will mention so in as many words, and then spend a couple of minutes re-iterating how it’s all about green will and yellow fear (thank god this movie doesn’t incorporate the entire spectrum of lanterns recently introduced in the comics, or we’d be in the theatre all day sorting it out). There’s a scene early on where Hal flashes back to his father’s death while losing control of his own plane, and it reminded me very much of the similar sequence in Airplane! — not good.
It’s maddeningly choppy too, with scenes shuffled around willy-nilly. There are far too many threads with far too many characters, most of whom show up for a scene or two — even a line or two — and are promptly never heard from again. It’s about as manic as a silver-age DC comic, but with none of the levity or sheer energy, and what may have been fine for a 1960s comic definitely does not make for a good movie.
There’s a definite identity crisis with Green Lantern; it is unsure whether it wants to be an Iron Man-style humorous fantasy-adventure, a sprawling cosmic creature ensemble, or a metaphor about the inner struggle of every human being (and alien) to overcome their doubts. In all aspects of this, it fails. I can think of a couple of scenes that well and truly work, but they are few and far between.
I’m quite the fan of Ryan Reynolds the actor, but I have to admit that he’s just the wrong choice for this role. Never allowed to truly let loose with either the humour or the darker aspects of Hal, he stands awkwardly in every scene with a pained expression on his face, seemingly waiting to go relieve his bladder somewhere. It’s a real shame. The supporting cast, for all their talent, is never given much to do, with the only bright spark being Peter Sarsgaard; he’s hardly a great villain, but what is there is at least entertaining. Mark Strong is perhaps the only other actor who makes an impression, and this is by delivering a solid, textbook Mark Strong performance.
It doesn’t help that but for Hal, the humans, and some of Sinestro, most things in the world of Green Lantern are done in CG. The aliens are stiffly animated, the suits just look silly, not otherworldly, and the most important aspect of Green Lantern’s power — the manifestation of his imagination through the ring — is handled through the most convoluted constructs. If you’ve ever wanted to see a helicopter turned into a race-car and then made to run interminably around a giant Hot Wheels track for precious little reason, well, this is your movie. You’ll just have to wade through an hour or so of awkwardness and derivative CGI to get there.
It’s quite a shock to see Martin Campbell’s name on this; the director of such crisply-executed films as Goldeneye and Casino Royale seems entirely invisible here. There’s none of the verve of his Bond films, or even the matinee swashbuckler charm of his Zorro outings. Indeed, many of the names on Green Lantern’s credits — both in front of and behind the camera — are enough to make one excited to see the finished results (I certainly was), but the film never delivers.
Green Lantern is the latest movie to be the victim of its overcooked production design & special effects, by which I mean the army of concept artists who painstakingly design every aspect of these imagined worlds have been given free reign, often to the determent of the movie. I can think of no better example of this than the council of Guardians on Oa, where someone had the bright idea to keep them all perched on columns high above a platform, leading to some awkward photographic compositions as characters look vaguely up at nothing and speak for a few minutes.
The comparison must inevitably be drawn between this movie and Kenneth Branagh’s Thor from just a month ago. If you want to see a movie which balances fun and high drama, the cosmic and the earthly, where opulent production design is in the service of the story and not a hindrance, and even the most gigantic set or special effect does not overshadow its characters, then by all means please go and watch Thor. Watch it again, in fact, over this.
There were rumours, years ago, of Jack Black — yes, that Jack Black — mounting a comedic version of Green Lantern. It sounded like a disaster at the time, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it never got made, paving the way for this version with its more traditional take on the character.
I think I may be able to convince the nine year old in me that Jack Black was the better way to go.