People say things like “it’s just a summer superhero movie” as though the rules of cinematic storytelling are somehow suspended for a movie that features robot jet fighters shooting a giant space octopus. But really, they’re not — and yes, in Green Lantern, robot jet fighters do in fact shoot a giant space octopus.
Green Lantern cost about $300 million to create and promote. That amount could fund a personal Fringe Festival production for every man, woman, and child in the city of Minneapolis. But microbudget Fringe producers are facing essentially the same challenge as the megabudget Green Lantern producers: a guy’s going to walk out in front of us, and he can do whatever he wants. If he holds up a lava lamp and says, “I am the Green Lantern,” we’ll go with it. The show won’t succeed or fail on the strength of its special effects: it has to make us care about the characters.
What’s most interesting about the way Green Lantern fails — and it does fail, really pretty badly — is that the movie’s central premise dramatizes very literally what it is that the movie is failing to do. Our hero Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds, looking “as hot as a white man can get,” says my sister) is mystically chosen as the next bearer of a ring forged by intergalactic immortals. The ring gives its bearer the power to materialize, “out of pure energy,” anything he imagines. The only limit to his power, we’re told, is the limit of his will.
So whatever happens, we know that the Green Lantern’s success or failure will hinge on the strength of his willpower and imagination — which is pretty much exactly how storytelling works, whether on screen, stage, page, or blog. If you can imagine a compelling story and deliver it with conviction, the events you describe will become real for your audience. If not, you’re in trouble.
The Green Lantern does well for himself, but all he has to do is hold off a giant space octopus; Green Lantern has to suspend our disbelief, and it’s overcome by the forces of chaos. Director Martin Campbell gets the casting right — Reynolds is winningly vulnerable, Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively brings old-school cinematic smolder into the 3D digital age (“she really comes out with both tits blazing,” says my sister), and Peter Sarsgaard is very convincingly tweaked-out as the schmucky scientist who becomes a pawn of the soul-eating space octopus — but that’s pretty much where the success of the film’s creative team ends.
Green Lantern’s basic premise puts the film’s four screenwriters in ontological quicksand. The world of the Green Lanterns (there are many of them across the universe, the specific number of Lanterns being something fairly large but definitely finite and completely arbitrary, like the number of people Jehovah’s Witnesses believe will go to heaven) is a world where physical matter is subject to constant manipulation by emotions channeled into energy, so if someone gets pissed off, his coffee cup may or may not suddenly turn into a surly gnome. (That’s the first thing I’ve mentioned in this review that does not actually happen in the movie.) When your hero could theoretically eat the sun if he wanted to, you’re going to have an unusual amount of ‘splaining to do when he can’t dodge a punch.
Not that Green Lantern doesn’t try to explain itself — boy, does it ever. The movie starts with a long prehistory narrative that feels like one of those orientation videos they make you watch before you go in to see a reconstructed pioneer fort or logging camp: you don’t really care, but you know you’re supposed to. Even by comic-book standards, Green Lantern’s back story is far out: the legions of Will Power stand off against the Forces of Fear. Embodied Fear is appropriately yellow, but Will Power is green. That’s supposed to be the color of Jealousy, and it actually kind of is, because it turns out that Will is Jealous of Fear. Got that?
It’s all kind of like something L. Ron Hubbard might cook up if asked to write a pulp serial on a tight deadline while drinking heavily and reading a lot of Nietzsche. (All the Lanterns and Immortals we meet are men. Just an observation.) The wacky premise would be fine if the film had fun with it, but ye gods — excuse me, ye Immortals — Green Lantern takes itself so stiflingly seriously that even the sidekick’s requisite skeptical one-liners (regarding the dying alien handing his Ring of Power to Reynolds: “He proposed?”) fall flat. The only person who seems to be winking here is composer James Newton Howard, who lays on the crunchy guitars and brass solos like he’s scoring a B-movie circa 1985.
Of all the holes blown in things that there are holes blown in—and in this movie, there are a lot of holes blown in a lot of things — the plot takes the biggest hits. For example, after an epic telekinetic tussle leaves a secret government laboratory wrecked and both combatants nearly unconscious, Reynolds and Sarsgaard are immediately shown waking up in their own respective beds. Did they just stand up, slap each other’s butts, and go home to shower?
Later, Reynolds flies back to Lantern Central (in a galaxy far, far away) to ask the Immortals’ permission to defend his own planet — which, it’s established, is the metaphysical Maginot at which Parallax the Space Octopus must be stopped lest he become powerful enough to eat the Lanterns et al. In all their CGI wisdom the Immortals grant that permission, but then don’t bother to send any reinforcements despite the fact that all the Lanterns are conveniently hanging out at home base in what’s described as an “unprecedented gathering.” The fate of the entire universe is at stake, and the Lantern Masters are acting like it’s spring training and they’re up by five runs. Let’s throw in the new draft pick and see how he does against the top of the lineup, huh? The rest of you Lanterns can hang out at the bar and flick peanuts at the next galaxy.
I won’t even mention the special effects, because they’re beside the point. You’re looking at a superhero movie that cost $300 million, so yeah, that space octopus is — convincing? Detailed? Well-dimensioned? I guess. Personally, though, I would have rented 200,000 monkeys and given each one a typewriter. At standard monkey-rental rates that would still leave you with $100 million, and 200,000 scripts to choose from that would be better than this one.
This review originally appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.