Sunday, June 26, 2011

Green Lantern (Warner Bros., De Line Pictures, DC Entertainment, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Green Lantern, the 2011 movie incarnation (oddly, though the character has been around since 1952 there’s only been one previous feature film, the animated one Green Lantern: First Flight from 2009, directed by Laura Montgomery from a script by Alan Burnett and with my hero, Christopher Meloni from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, voicing the Green Lantern, though the character has made cameo appearances in some of the TV shows that have drawn on the DC Comics characters), turned out to be enjoyable but not overwhelming. Charles and I saw it at the Regal (formerly UA) Theatres in Horton Plaza, in a screen that isn’t actually all that big (let’s face it, the size gap between movie theatre screens and TV’s is narrowing fast and I’m not sure this movie would lose anything if we watched the forthcoming DVD on a large-screen digital TV!).

There’s an odd article by veteran film critic David Thomson in the current Harper’s that suggests that after 100-plus years of movies, the current audience has abandoned interest in plot and construction and reverted to the state of moviegoers in the Lumière theatre in the 1890’s, interested only in sensation — then it was the sensation of a train bearing down on them (the camera and its operator dug a hole under the tracks so they could film an oncoming train without either being run over or having to worry about getting out of the way) and now it’s spectacular, digitally created action scenes that exist on their own without the necessity of more than a token connection between them. Thomson exaggerates his point a bit — even during the 1930’s audiences flocked to see the Busby Berkeley musicals for the same reason they go to CGI extravaganzae today: to watch the spectacular numbers, and either patiently sit through or nod off during the plot portions that supposedly set them up. (As I pointed out regarding the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie, its director, Rob Marshall, was most famous for his musical Chicago and described the Pirates action sequences as “numbers,” indicating he didn’t see much difference between directing a musical and an action film.)

According to the “Trivia” entries on it, the 2011 Green Lantern went through several incarnations — including a proposal that Jack Black star in it, which would have been even more bizarre than Seth Rogen playing the Green Hornet — and writers and directors rotated onto and off the property for a decade or so before the version we have finally came together. The Green Lantern is actually not a solo superhero in the mold of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man or Iron Man; he’s a member of an entire Green Lantern Corps stretching out throughout the universe. They are the products of the Guardians, who look like giant flower vases with Quentin Crisp-like heads sticking out on top of them and run the entire Green Lantern Corps from a planet called Oa (pronounced “OH-uh”); they’ve learned to harness the power of will and turn it into a compound of energy and matter that can materialize in any form the user imagines and is colored green, the color of will. Their big problem is that a renegade Guardian named Parallax figured out how to use similar techniques to harness fear, which works similarly to will but is yellow, and Parallax was able to visit various planets, scare the hell out of their inhabitants, absorb their fear to make himself stronger, and annihilate them — until a Green Lantern named Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) managed to trap Parallax onto a planet in a remote, isolated zone of the universe … only Parallax manages to escape and is working its way towards earth, which is in the sector of the universe that Abin Sur is responsible for.

Meanwhile, a hot-shot test pilot named Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) who flies for the Ferris Aviation Company and has an off-and-on relationship with Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), the daughter of its owner Carl Ferris (Jay O. Sanders), takes up an expensive new plane in a contest against two drones and wins but is forced to abandon the plane and bail out. Then he suddenly founds himself surrounded by a giant green ball of energy and transported hundreds of miles to where Abin Sur lays dying on Earth, having lost his last battle with Parallax, and the ring that’s the instrument by which the Green Lanterns channel their powers flies off his finger and onto Hal’s as Abin Sur dies. After Abin Sur’s body is discovered by the military, Dr. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard, made up to look surprisingly homely for the guy I remember as the hunk from Kinsey), son of Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins), is summoned to give Abin Sur an autopsy — only he’s infected by a bit of the yellow energy and turns into Parallax’s incarnation on earth. That’s basically the plot; Hal Jordan gets to do a lot of hemming and hawing as to whether he should accept the responsibility of saving earth from Parallax or just keep carousing, drinking, screwing women he barely knows and teasing Carol Ferris while resisting anything resembling a commitment, either romantic or career-wise.

Eventually he shows up on Oa and gets run through a drill-instruction style training by a couple of Green Lanterns called Sinestro (Mark Strong) and Kilowog (a CGI creation voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan — parts of the Green Lantern training program seem like ordinary military “basic” but parts of it seem to have been patterned after the Nazi rallies and for a little while Green Lantern starts to look like Leni Riefenstahl directed a superhero movie (not inappropriately since “will” is the source of the Green Lanterns’ power and Riefenstahl’s most famous, and most openly propagandistic, movie was called Triumph of the Will) — before Jordan seemingly washes out of the training program, only to knuckle down to it and persuade the Guardians that they ought to let him go against Parallax solo rather than risk the lives of more Green Lanterns going after him/her/it as a group force. Of course, Our Hero finally vanquishes Parallax, though in the meantime Sinestro has invented a yellow “fear ring” and in a sequence most of the audience at our showing missed because it occurs midway through the credits and all too many modern-day moviegoers respond to the start of the credit roll as if it were the starting gun of the 100-meter dash at the Olympics, Sinestro puts it on and thereby suggests (not too surprisingly even if you didn’t see Green Lantern: First Flight, in which Sinestro was the principal villain) that there’s going to be a sequel in which he’s going to be the bad guy.

Green Lantern is a good superhero movie in the modern manner — it doesn’t have much in the way of camp (the funniest scene is the one in which Hal Jordan is trying to figure out how to use the green lantern itself — it’s the device that recharges his ring when its energy runs low — only you have to say the oath of the Green Lantern Corps as you recharge, and Abin Sur croaked without telling Hal what the oath was, so Hal starts making stuff up until the actual oath steals into his subconscious and works its way out of his mouth: “In brightest day, in blackest night / No evil shall escape my sight / Let all who worship evil’s might / Beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!”) but it’s also not as mind-numbingly serious as the Spider-Man movies or Christopher Nolan’s two Batman films. The problem is with the script, which even more than usual in a modern-day action epic is just an excuse to set up the action scenes; I actually found Green Lantern: First Flight more entertaining, not only because Christopher Meloni voiced the character with a power and authority that far eluded Ryan Reynolds (though Reynolds wasn’t bad casting at all: he’s hunky and does well as the irresponsible hot-shot pilot even though he’s clearly channeling Tom Cruise in Top Gun — there’s even a scene in which he romances his girlfriend in a sleazy restaurant by singing along with a rock ’n’ roll oldie! — and he’s certainly competent as an action figure, though spend enough on CGI and motion-capture and a film crew could probably make me look like a superhero) but also because it had only one screenwriter: Green Lantern’s writing credit is screen story by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim, and script by those ampersanded three plus an “and,” meaning the next-named writer replaced them instead of directly collaborating, and the name of Michael Goldenberg, and once again the comparison of Alan Barnett’s strong, well-constructed story for First Flight with the lame pretexts Messrs. Berlanti, Green, Guggenheim and Goldenberg came up with to set up the action scenes offers further evidence for my general-field theory of cinema that the overall quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers.

Green Lantern isn’t a bad movie at all, though, and I admire the chutzpah of the “suits” at Warners for green-lighting and spending between $150 and $200 million on a film that goes so far against the modern-day Zeitgeist: in an era in which the very idea of people (or beings) joining together for a collective purpose and assuming responsibility for each other is being relentlessly trashed and we’re being told that there is no such thing as “society,” there are only individuals and we are all in competition with everyone else 24/7 and have to screw them before they screw us, the idea of a superhero who actually has to function as part of an intergalactic team, work together with his peers, accept the leadership of a collective council and acknowledge a responsibility to the entire corps is a positive and progressive one (despite the hissy-fit of the American Prospect writer who was upset that the film was cast with a white Green Lantern character who, in the comic books, has long since been replaced by a Black one) — which may account for the relatively disappointing box-office turnout for this film: it’s drawn people to theatres but hasn’t been the mega-blockbuster Warners was clearly hoping for. Or maybe, as the “Overrated/Underrated” columnist in the Los Angeles Times joked in today’s paper about the disappointing grosses of both Green Lantern and The Green Hornet, maybe it’s the color green — with its acutely unfashionable (these days) environmentalist connotations — that’s the politically incorrect aspect of these films.