Valley of the Lanterns
The colour green, so my researches on t'internet have revealed, has many and various symbolic associations – with immortality, with nature, with love and with financial prosperity. Most significantly right now, it is also famously the colour of envy. Given the truly colossal revenues raked in by the various movies spawned by Marvel Comics over the past decade and a bit – and here I'm thinking of the legion of blockbusters based on X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and so on – it would be deeply surprising if their long-time rivals at DC Comics weren't a striking verdant shade right now. The only successful movies DC have put out in the same time period are the two Christopher Nolan Batman pictures – massive popular and critical hits, to be sure, but even so...
Well, not surprisingly, DC are having another crack at big-screen success, in the form of Green Lantern, directed by Martin Campbell. Campbell, as you may know, directed two of the best Bond movies of all time, in addition to the brilliant TV thriller Edge of Darkness, so he can do the business – even if a SF-themed superhero fantasy seems a bit of a departure for him. I, as you probably don't know but will soon be painfully aware, used to be a pretty hard-core Green Lantern fanboy. My search for a particular back-issue (the infamous #51 of the third series) is a running joke for my family. So this could turn into a bit of a bumpy ride. Oh, well, can't be helped...
Green Lantern boils down to being the story of brilliant but irresponsible test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) whose devil-may-care antics cause all kinds of problems for his boss and sharer of unresolved sexual chemistry Carol (Blake Lively – cripes, that actually seems to be her real name). But things change when a gobbet of green energy plucks Hal off the streets and transports him to the side of a dying alien cop (Temuera Morrison, briefly), recently crash-landed thereabouts. The cop is looking for someone to take over his job, to which end he bequeaths Hal a green lantern. Why? you may be wondering. Well, let the man himself explain, in the words of the original comic:
'A green lantern... but actually it is a battery of power... given only to selected space-patrolmen in the super-galactic system... to be used as a weapon against forces of evil and injustice...'
Well, that's that sorted out, then. (The dialogue in the movie isn't quite as hokey as the stuff John Broome was writing back in the 50s, but it's a close thing.) The lantern comes with a matching ring, the wearing of which gives Hal the power to summon up anything he can think of (in any colour he wants, as long as it's green) as well as fly through space. All these powers will come in handy as the giant space nasty that mortally wounded the cop is heading for Earth, preceded by a scientist (Peter Saarsgard), whose exposure to the cop's corpse gives him enormous psychic powers and a bit of a swelled head...
Well. From being green-lit to hitting the screen, the gestation period for one of these enormous summer movies – which this definitely is – is about three years, which means that Green Lantern got the go-ahead just about the time that the first Iron Man was racking up some serious revenue. It's very hard to shake the suspicion that the latter is responsible for the former. All of these movies are very similar in their structure, of course, but the characters, their development, and relationships in this film are all terribly familiar.
Of course this shouldn't matter, and it really wouldn't if the story was involving and witty and well-played. One of Green Lantern's main problems is that the script is trying to do too much. The fictional GL universe is a vast and complex one with a lot of detailed back-story, and to me the movie tries too hard to include it all. Rather than letting the story open with Hal so that audiences can learn about things just as he does, everything kicks off with a sonorous voice-over talking about alien immortals and the green energy of willpower, and the fear-monster of the lost sector...I knew all this stuff already and still seemed a bit over the top to me. Lord knows what newcomers will make of it – the villain's not the only one who's going to end up bulging at the occiput, I suspect.
It's a fairly busy plot with a lot of different threads and not all of them really pull their weight (I apologise for that horribly mixed metaphor). I suspect a lot of them are here just to tickle the happy buttons of the Green Lantern fanbase, who are a dedicated bunch: a previous attempt to make this movie was abandoned when news of the project was greeted with bared fangs online (but then it was going to be a comedy, starring Jack Black). So we get voice cameos from Geoffrey Rush as Tomar-Re and Michael Clarke Duncan as Kilowog, and a just-about-in-the-flesh appearance by Mark Strong as Sinestro, using three well-known comics characters when the film probably only needed one of the three to tell the story. (The ultimate bad guy is Parallax, not the original version – obviously – nor, so far as I've kept up with these things, the retcon that replaced him. So they're really just using the name, then.) That said, the movie focuses very much on the core iteration of the Green Lantern character. The power comes from the ring, which has been worn by many characters down the years: Hal Jordan is the highest-profile of the main Green Lanterns but also (I would argue) the least interesting. No sign of the Alan Scott, Guy Gardner, John Stewart or Kyle Rayner versions here; perhaps one of them will make it into the sequel which this movie takes some pains to set up.
For me, however, the biggest problem with this film is that – well, parts of it are set in California. Parts of it are set elsewhere in Space Sector 2514, in the Lost Sector, and on the planet Oa at the heart of the universe. But events most frequently occur somewhere close to that peculiar realm known as the Uncanny Valley. The what? you ask, again. Well, basically, you know when you see a CGI picture that's just a little too perfectly rendered to actually feel realistic? When it looks so real it feels fake? That's when you're in the Uncanny Valley.
There are great chunks of Green Lantern where practically everything you see on screen is CGI, up to and including Ryan Reynold's costume and mask. The film looks astounding even in 2D, but you never buy into it and forget you're watching a movie. For a film about a fairly obscure character with a silly name (I once asked Garth Ennis and John McCrea why they cracked so many jokes at Green Lantern's expense during his guest-appearance in Hitman #s 10-12, and they basically said 'because he's inherently ridiculous') you need to ground everything in reality, not keep constantly kicking the audience out of the film by throwing a new improbable-looking alien vista or creature at them.
And spectacle does take place of story to some extent. A lot of the plot unfolds via the mechanism of characters making expository speeches to one another with vast CGI landscapes in the background. There's relatively little ring-slinging action in the movie, and it's certainly not what you'd call a breathless thrill-ride. The focus on character brings its own rewards, of course, and Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively do well (even if Lively does seem a tad decorative).
Green Lantern is amusing and aesthetically pleasing up to a point, and the story hangs together well enough, but it's sprawling and talky and a bit too much in love with its own universe to really satisfy as a superhero adventure. And I say this as someone who already knows the mythos and was thus in no danger of suffering info-dump overload. Newcomers may just find it a very thin and rather familiar story, swamped by rinky-dinky visuals and too many characters with funny heads. It's not actually a bad movie, it has nice performances and a certain visual novelty to it – but it's not close to the standard of the best of the Marvel films. Not DC's darkest night at the cinema, but a long way from its brightest day, too.