Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Brightest day, darkest night, yada yada yada....

I saw Green Lantern a while back, and I've been struggling since then to figure out how to write about it. I liked the movie, quite a bit. I grant some of its flaws, but for the life of me, I can't justify the enormous piling-on of the critics who have ripped the film and given it an awful reputation. That, plus what I understand to be lackluster box office, seems to cast doubt on any hopes that Green Lantern might be the start of a franchise. Maybe DVD sales will help, but in this era of slackening DVD sales – well, I'd be surprised if the next time we see Green Lantern on the big screen will likely be a reboot that happens later rather than sooner.

Green Lantern just isn't a bad film. It simply isn't. Not one of its flaws is sufficient to sink it as an enjoyable experience, and I think that a lot of the harping on those flaws is downright unfair. One common complaint – too much CG! -- has really become, in my view, a crutch complaint that everybody levels against everything nowadays in the movies.

But the thing is...Green Lantern is a frustrating film, because I've rarely seen a movie that makes so clear the ways it could have been a truly outstanding film in its genre. On the one hand, it's a fun movie. On the other, it's a maddening one.

I came to Green Lantern fairly virginal as far as the character goes. I knew very little about him aside from the bare bones of his origin: a hotshot pilot named Hal Jordan comes across a crashed alien spaceship, whose purple-skinned pilot hands him his green ring and the green lantern that powers the ring. In this way, Jordan becomes a Green Lantern – a member of an intergalactic police force, who uses his ring's power to fight evil. I did read some recent comics -- mostly stuff by Geoff Johns -- as preparation for the movie. Some of it, I liked. Some of it (lookin' at you, Blackest Night), I thought was just over-the-top, histrionic nonsense. But anyway....

Green Lantern casts Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, and it's a fine performance. The character isn't really anything we haven't seen a lot of times before; he's the talented but uncommitted screw-up who is given power far exceeding his apparent level of maturity and who must learn to see within himself whatever the "ring" saw. Yes, that's a tried-and-true formula, but that's because when done well, it really works. In Green Lantern, it does work, but not as well as it should. Why?

Well, for one thing, the film keeps taking its focus off Hal Jordan for other things. There's a lengthy intro that tells us a lot of stuff about who the Green Lanterns are and what they do and why they do it. It's kind of interesting, but...it's too early for it. There's a reason why, in Star Wars, we're more than a half hour into the movie before the words "Jedi Knight" are ever uttered. The movie has to set up its enormous cosmic threat, a beastie called Parallax. Now, I liked the way Parallax was depicted, but I kept thinking throughout the movie that we really needed a tighter focus on Hal Jordan the whole way through.

And there's the other problem: Parallax isn't the only villainous force in play here; there's a whole other villain too. A scientist is somehow infected with the "Yellow" power of fear, and becomes the initial threat that Jordan must face before Parallax finally comes to call on Earth. And here is part of my general problem with superhero movies these days: they're all origins, all the time.

I don't mind origin stories for superheroes; in fact, we need them, so we know who they are and why they can do the things they do and why they do them in the first place. Problems arise when, in addition to a superhero's origin story, we also have to endure a long origin story for the villain, too. That happens here. It happens in the Spiderman movies. It's going to happen again in the new Spiderman movie, the one that's a reboot that will apparently treat us all to seeing Peter Parker bitten by the damn spider again.

The best superhero movies I've seen -- Superman, the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Iron Man – don't really bother with the origins of the villains, because they don't really need to. We can spend time delving into Superman's origin properly because we're not also having to learn all about how Lex Luthor became, well, Lex Luthor. Ditto The Dark Knight -- we know who Batman is, and all we need know about the Joker is that he's a lunatic. Now, the first two Spiderman movies were still well-made, but in each case, we still had to watch long origin stories for the supervillains. And in Spiderman 3, there were two of them.

I was looking forward to Green Lantern because of the hero's space opera nature, but it turns out that Green Lantern might have really been something special if it had omitted much of the space opera and left that for the potential sequel. I did groove on all the space stuff, but I can't help thinking that what the movie really needed to do was tighten the focus on Hal Jordan, give him more heroic things to do, and have him square off against not quite so cosmic a villain.

Random thoughts:

:: If the Lanterns can fly through space by themselves, why does Abin Sur have a spaceship at all?

:: Why can Parallax slap aside a dozen Lanterns in one scene, and then get taken to the mat by Hal Jordan?

:: The final fight is over too soon, anyway. Jordan should have been battered and bloody well before he got to his "In brightest day...." recitation. (Which was a great moment, by the way.)

:: I loved the fact that a little mask isn't enough to conceal Jordan's identity from those who know him. I also loved how he tried using the Christian Bale Batman-raspy voice.

:: Some folks have complained that Sinestro's taking of the yellow ring, during the credits, isn't set up in the movie. See, coming at this from a non-GL fan perspective, I thought that Sinestro's presence in the movie did nothing but set this up. It's the only reason he's in the movie at all. So the film is actually giving us three origin stories!

:: I loved the look of the film. It's not nearly as 'green' as the commercials and posters suggest. I also didn't find the CGI poorly done at all. But then, these kinds of complaints seem to me to usually spring from people who have an overly strong attachment to Harryhausen stop-motion stuff.

:: Having heard the score now in context of the film...it's still a bad film score.

So there it is. I hope there's another movie, but I'm not optimistic. But I liked this one.


Roger Owen Green said...

having not seen the movie, and not seeped into DC lore, I have to assume a character would a spaceship to save his energy for battle, or whatever.

Michael May said...

I agree with you. It's not a bad film nor is it outstanding. It's "okay."

I think what's going on is that the bar's been raised high enough on superhero films that "okay" isn't okay anymore. Audiences and critics have both seen what can be done with s superhero movie and have learned that it's possible to expect great things from them.

Green Lantern didn't deserve the dogpile that it got, but I do wish it had been a much better movie.

Bill said...

I never thought about Abin Sur's spaceship before. Thanks, that's going to bother me for the rest of my life.

Nathaniel W said...

I'm often totally with you regarding overhated movies (like the Pirates and Star Wars pictures), but not this one. I'm sure this one got piled on this summer, and I'm usually too wishy-washy to make declarations about a movie being a flat out "bad film", but I would never pick this one to stick up for.

- I thought it was a mess of tone. Reynolds can be a funny, charming guy, so why is Hal so mopy for most of the middle of the picture? Then the truly grim, horrific material with Sarsgaard turning into the elephant man seemed like it belonged in a different movie (more on that in a moment). And any time it looked like things were settling into a fun or exciting groove (Oh look, a bunch of aliens with magic powers! Wow, a neat, silly action scene with a bunch of ramps and springs and stuff!), we follow it with scenes of Hal on his sofa not wanting to be a Green Lantern.

- It felt like one of those truly committeed-to-death movies that didn't seem to understand how a story works. I didn't know much at all about the Green Lantern character before the film, and the movie more like reading bits and pieces on Wikipedia than an actual dramatic and engaging story. We get the opening narration, which is not at all a dramatic way to give us all of that potentially goofy information, before we have any characters to know or care about, and then we have to wait for Hal to learn it and get over his (equally clunkily established) personal issues before he can engage with it. So we're way ahead of him, and we don't even get the pleasure of discovery since we had the primer in the opening minutes. Sarsgaard's character is essentially in his own little movie that has almost no impact on Hal's story (and with two really minor writing adjustments you could have lifted his character out entirely and it wouldn't change the story of the film a bit). We don't learn until approximately 1/2 or 2/3 of the way into the film that Hal, Carol, and Hammond grew up together and once we have that information the film does exactly nothing with it. And the mid-credits tag with Sinestro taking the yellow ring was obviously referencing something from the comic book but in this movie it seemed thoroughly unmotivated and actually betrayed what we did get to see and learn about his character and his relationship with Hal.

The movie didn't make me angry or anything, and I enjoyed some of the action or alien designs or isolated character moments (really dug when Carol says that of course she recognizes Hal out on the balcony), but my predominant reaction to the movie was just confusion. Why are they showing me this scene? How did they decide that this was the way to dramatize this beat? How did this movie end up this way? I was certainly hoping to enjoy it, and Martin Campbell made one of my very favorite superhero movies with The Mask of Zorro (which in retrospect actually tells a similar story of a young man taking on the mantle of an old superhero) but this just failed for me over and over.