Review: Awkward, uneven ‘Green Lantern’ packs no punch

I want to like “Green Lantern.”

I don’t want to be the guy who calls the time of death at the scene of the crime.

I walked in with several different levels of expectation for the movie, and to fully explain my reaction, I’ll have to clue you in to what I was thinking as I sat down.  First, my two sons are absolutely out of their mind crazy to see the movie, and I was watching it as a parent wondering if it would be appropriate for the boys based on the other things they’ve seen.  Second, I like the idea of DC and Warner Bros. trying a big DC Universe on film, and I hoped for “Green Lantern” to be the movie to kick that off.  Third, I think Ryan Reynolds is a guy who is primed for stardom, and he’s just looking for the right movie.  I walked in liking the last few major pieces of marketing, the stuff I saw at Wondercon and the big online trailer and the last big mythology trailer.  I like Martin Campbell at times.  In general, I was pumped and primed and buttered to go.

And yet…

I don’t like “Green Lantern.”  Not even a little bit.

I think the movie is pretty much inert, artificial and dead on arrival.

First, there’s no way my boys are seeing it.  The movie in general appears to be written for eight-year-olds, which is appropriate, and a smart move.  But Parallax and Hector Hammond, the villains of the film, seem to be in a different film, a much more inappropriate film about a giant weird turd cloud with the head of the Wizard Of Oz that sucks the skeletons out of people before they explode, and his human assistant who grows a disgusting Elephant Man head in scenes where he screams in pain and writhes on the floor like it’s a David Cronenberg film.  Second, I don’t think is the first building block of a world I want to spend more time in.  Unless there are some big choices made behind the scenes on a second film, I don’t have any faith in this as a franchise, much less step one in the DC Universe.  Third, this is not the role for Reynolds, and it’s not his fault.  The marketing is more successful than the movie, and made promises the movie just can’t fulfill.  Martin Campbell is as wrong for this film as he was right for “Casino Royale.”  In general, I was deflated and depressed by the film I saw.

It feels to me like a puzzle that someone put together wrong, never checking the picture on the front of the box that they’re working from, and it should work but doesn’t.  There are many things that it does right, individual elements that are interesting or well-executed or that have potential.  Taken as a whole, though, it’s so wrong that it’s almost confusing.  It’s a state of the art superhero film if the year were 1995.  If this were released in the same summer as “Judge Dredd” and “Johnny Mnemonic,” this would look pretty solid by comparison.  It is clumsy and ham-handed when the character and the world demand a lighter touch.  Martin Campbell has several things he does well.  Light and funny really isn’t his thing.  His set-up is labored here, and the script by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg follows a particular formula structure that bugs me.  This is a movie where the main character spends most of the middle of the film angsting away about whether he should or shouldn’t be a superhero.  Mope, mope, mope.  And then finally, he does what we’ve been waiting for him to do, and it feels like too little too late, frankly.

Let’s back up and talk about what does work.  Ryan Reynolds seems well-cast to me, and he works his butt off to make it live and breathe.  It’s just that the role lets him down by being so thin and underwritten.  If they’d figured out how to make him an active character instead of a passive lead, I think he could have turned this into a real breakout moment.  Peter Sarsgaard is deranged as Hector Hammond, even before he begins his largely disgusting change.  It’s a nice performance, even if it makes me afraid for any children ever left in Sarsgaard’s care.  Mark Strong’s Sinestro deserves a much, much better movie that is worth of the work he’s doing.  He is alien and badass and wise and cynical, and he suggests a pretty rich world of experience.  Even with Sinestro, I have a major gripe, and I’ll hide that below in a spoiler paragraph, but for the most part, he’s one of the best things about the movie.  I like Kilowog as well, with a voice by Michael Clarke Duncan, and I like the overall design of the world of Oa by Grant Major.

And beyond that, pretty much nothing else works.  And those elements that do work are very disconnected, so it never gets a chance to add up to anything.  There are major stretches of the film where the tone is just wrong and where the choices made are sort of baffling.  I don’t buy the chemistry between Reynolds and Blake Lively.  She’s not particularly bad in the film, but she’s not particularly good in it, either. Much of the fault lies with what they’re asked to do.  Everything is broad strokes here.  Everything is played in a very arch “comic book” way that feels infantile.  Yet, throughout, there are elements in the narrative and in the staging of certain sequences that are just needlessly grim.  If the film’s tone overall was the same, it wouldn’t bother me, or if it felt like they were making a film with the adult audience in mind at all. 

Once Hal Jordan (Reynolds) has been given the ring, he leaves the planet and goes to Oa, a distant alien world, so that he can be trained and inducted into the Green Lantern Corps.  This is the straight up solid gold money in the bank stuff if you get it right, and they both do and don’t, which is why it’s so frustrating.  The other members of the Green Lantern Corps who we meet are suitably alien and bizarre and interesting, and the Guardians, the wizened little being in charge of the Corps, are visually very striking.  But if you’ve watched the trailers, you’ve seen pretty much all there is of Kilowog and Tomar Re (Geoffrey Rush), and you’ve seen most of Mark Strong as Sinestro.  His make-up and visual design is inspired, and you’re left wanting more of him every time he exits a scene.  So why is it that we hustle back to Earth to limp through a perfunctory “will-he-or-won’t-he?” crisis during the gradual build-up of the bad guys until paths, as they inevitably will, cross during a big party for Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins), father to the ugly-on-the-inside-too Hector Hammond?  And considering it’s the first big showdown, powers against powers, it’s a bust.  Like almost every moment involving the ring, there’s just something off about the imagination on display.  It’s weird… Campbell basically did make a superhero origin story with “The Mask Of Zorro,” and it’s a fluke, a spirited, fun movie that works pretty well.  Normally, that is not his skill set.  He’s a guy you go to for grim little dramas with action shot in real places.  How he misses the tone here so completely confuses me.  Maybe the overwhelming number of greenscreen shots just crushed him, since he’s a guy who has always seemed more comfortable on location, shooting real stunts.  And I’m sure this is an expensive film, but it feels to me during the Oa sequences like there’s a studio accountant standing just out of frame yelling, “Hurry up and end this montage, because we can only afford three and a half minutes of Kilowog!”

Now a few spoilers as we wrap this up, things that really stand out as disappointing or frustrating.  If you are familiar with the comic or with the recent “Green Lantern” animated films from DC, then you know that Sinestro eventually turns and becomes a major villain in the “Green Lantern” mythology.  But in this film, he’s played as a hero for the entire film, established as an important and integrity-driven character, shows up to help every time he needs to, and then, after the credits have begun at the end, he just suddenly does something that changes his character completely that is so overt that he should just look directly into the camera and bellow, “SEE YOU IN THE SEQUEL WHERE I WILL BE THE BAD GUY!!!!”  It is so thrown away, such a needless revelation that has zero impact in the film because of how it’s handled, that it seems infuriating.  It feels calculated and cynical and considering how little of the film works, having them threaten me with a sequel at the end feels like insult on top of injury.  The other thing that really doesn’t work is the way Parallax has been designed.  An amorphous cloud with an occasional head is a deeply uninteresting bad guy, and the last fight between the cloud and the dude in front of the green screen is completely uninteresting.  It is an inaction scene, and it suggests that Campbell just didn’t have a sense of how to stage the action here.

More importantly, is this really all Hollywood can come up with for Angela Bassett to do these days? Really?

In a summer where we’ve had some good superhero films already and we’re seeing people really start to have fun with the genre, “Green Lantern” stands out as a pretty major misstep.  Visually, it’s an eyesore.  It is the first genuinely ugly film shot by Dion Beebe, and between the production design by Grant Major and the New Orleans locations, it feels artificial, like the entire thing was shot on a small, dingy backlot.  It feels like a pretty major missed opportunity, and I have a feeling this will be a lot more “The Shadow” than Tim Burton’s “Batman” when it comes to the general public.  I can’t imagine word of mouth being any good for the film, especially not for people who are new to the character and the world.

The ring may not make mistakes when it chooses a new Green Lantern, but plenty of mistakes were made in bringing “Green Lantern” to the screen, and in the end, I have a feeling this is our one and only trip to Oa.

“Green Lantern” opens everywhere this Friday, June 17, 2011.