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Huff Post Review: Green Lantern Not As Good As Hoped, Not As Bad As Feared

Posted: 06/16/11 03:32 PM ET

Green Lantern 2011 105 minutes rated PG-13

I kept waiting... I had read the earlier reviews, which seemed to confirm all of the worst fears stretching back to last November.  But the hate never came.  Martin Campbell's Green Lantern is a deeply problematic comic book adventure, with structural and character development issues that should damn-well have felled the film.  But like its title character, it overcomes its own weaknesses and embraces its inherent flaws.  The picture has signs of tinkering and studio interference.  But it also has several fine action scenes, a strong visual style that feels like a living comic book, and arguably the best 3D conversion yet achieved in live-action.  Oh, and it also has Peter Sarsgaard, but more on that later.  I have no idea how Green Lantern purists will react, but the film as it is remains a weird combination of gee-whiz kid-friendly superhero antics and truly disturbing horror elements.  That the film is not quite the triumph we wanted may be tragic.  That the film as it stands works at all may qualify as a miracle.

A token amount of plot: Test pilot Hal Jordan is out of a job, having crashed a new plane during a risky maneuver.  But little does he know that he is about to be chosen as serve as one of the Green Lantern Corps.  What's a Green Lantern?  If you don't know, Geoffrey Rush explains it pretty well in the prologue.  Anyway, as Hal Jordan wrestles with finally stepping up to responsibility, childhood friend Dr. Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) finds himself infected with an alien life form that is in turn connected to the horrifying force of living death known as Parallax.  Point being, if Jordan can't step up to the plate and become a Green Lantern worthy of the title, all of Earth may be doomed...

In a offhanded way, Martin Campbell's Green Lantern feels like a hybrid of the 1990s super hero films and the more modern variation.  With its broadly drawn character types and occasionally ham-fisted dialogue, it brings to mind the gee-wiz adventure pictures like The Phantom and The Shadow.  But in its depiction of its villains, it resembles a full-blown horror film.  While the film's overtly terrifying antagonists make the film less-than-appropriate for the youngest of audiences, it will also make the film feel like some kind of forbidden treasure for those a little older.  Point being, if I had seen this when I was 8 or 9, I would have enjoyed the superhero adventure elements and felt like I was getting away with something watching the evil Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown... awesome!) rip peoples' skeletons out of their body in somewhat graphic detail.  Helping matters in this arena is Peter Sarsgaard, who gives a wonderfully trippy performance as Dr. Hector Hammond.  Even before he gets infected, Sarsgaard plays him like a creepy would-be pedophile with no social skills and barely a hint of self-esteem.  But Sarsgaard throws himself into it with such gusto that he is easily the most entertaining thing in the picture.  So it is to the film's benefit that the movie focuses almost as much on his transformation as it does with Reynolds' arc.  It's a notable contrast: two people being gifted with super powers with differing results.

As for the heroic side of the team, Reynolds suits himself well here.  Despite a presumption from film punditry at large that Reynolds is only capable of playing variations on Van Wilder, he remains a solid dramatic and low-key comic actor when the need arises (The Amityville Horror, The Nines, Adventureland, Buried, etc).  Reynolds thankfully keeps the whole 'cocky, arrogant jerk in need of a life lesson' thing in check, as his Hal Jordan is presented as a generally decent man who overcompensates for his own fear, a trait pretty much every major character calls him on throughout.  Yes, the film overplays the whole 'Hal Jordan is afraid to admit his own fear' card, but 'fear' as a theme is no more overtly presented here than Chris Nolan's Batman pictures (next time you watch Batman Begins, drink anytime someone says 'fear' or 'afraid').  Granted, it's a bit silly to hear Hal Jordan complain about being afraid when the whole Earth is in peril (IE -- what are you gonna do, let the Earth just die anyway?).  Despite that, Reynolds makes a surprisingly sympathetic and relatively relatable Hal Jordan, and he wins points for not gratuitously being a jerk for the sake of quips.

Blake Lively, as Carol Ferris, doesn't quite excel, but she keeps her head above water.  Her dramatic scenes with Reynolds and others are fine, but the film feels the need to shoe-horn 'romantic moments' that waste valuable screen time as we get a solid feel on Hal and Carol's relationship during the course of the narrative anyway.  On the plus side, one such scene gets the film's biggest laugh (no spoilers, but it's a great play on the whole 'secret identity' shtick).  On the plus side, Ferris spends a bare minimum of time in peril, and at least one of those few moments is basically a side-effect of her own bravery (IE -- she pushes a bystander out of harm's way and takes the hit).  When the film lets her be a supporting character rather than 'the love interest,' Lively does just fine.  Taika Waititi is surprisingly winning as Reynolds' friend, taking a role that could have easily been played for broad camp and keeping it low-key.  The rest of the cast basically shows up for paychecks (or in the case of Angela Bassett as Dr. Amanda Waller, to establish her for whatever other plans Warner has with DC Comics movies).  Jay O. Sanders is always welcome, although Tim Robbins looks a little lost in this comic book world.

Despite marketing that heavily emphasizes the world of Oa, we only visit that realm for MAYBE a third of the picture.  Of the various Green Lantern corps members, only Mark Strong's Sinestro makes a solid impression.  He is mainly around this time to pontificate and call out the Guardians on their inaction (frankly, the Guardians are about as proactive as the Jedi Council), but he still represents an idealized Green Lantern with a strong sense of morality and justice.  The other notable Corp members get barely a few lines.  Michael Clarke Duncan's Kilowog basically shows up to beat down Jordan and call him a 'poozer' a few times.  Geoffrey Rush's Tomer-Re exists mainly to provide exposition and a touch of moral support.  It's obvious that the character work amongst the other Green Lanterns is being saved for a sequel, but it's still unfortunate that some extra running time (the film runs just 100 minutes before credits) could not have been allotted to highlight the other intergalactic warriors.  There is a pretty obvious hint during the end credits about where the sequel will go, but I won't spoil it for the three of you reading this who can't guess.

Okay, enough about things like character and plot, how does the film play as an FX-filled action spectacle? To my shock and pleasant surprise, the 3D conversion is pretty darn terrific.  The 3D work feels completely natural and immersive in a completely non-distracting sense.  The CGI material looks terrific in 3D, but there is even a depth to the Earthbound sets and scenarios.  Considering Warner Bros. set the bar for lousy 3D conversions with Clash of the Titans last year, it is heartening to see that they seem serious about undoing that damage.  If this is how 3D is going to look for the near future, I can certainly see how 3D can become a regular part of mainstream moviegoing (again, providing moviegoers have the option of cheaper 2D viewings).   Pricing issues aside, I'd pretty much recommend seeing Green Lantern in 3D just to see what a good live-action conversion should look like.  The special effects are a mixed bag, as the early moments of Reynolds flying through Oa are pretty terrible.  But most of the effects work (the prologue, the earthbound action scenes, etc) vary between rock-solid and charmingly mediocre (unlike some, I don't let less-than-perfect special effects distract me from an otherwise enjoyable movie).

The action sequences are generally strong.  The first act has two terrific set pieces, as the interstellar prologue is followed by a terrific fighter jet dogfight.  As is the case with director Martin Campbell, the action is always easy to follow, usually presented in wide and long takes, with a clear sense of time and place.  A second-act helicopter rescue is pretty mediocre and awfully silly, but the film redeems itself by basically having characters state exactly that in a following scene (it's a brave movie that makes fun of its own action scenes).  The confrontations between Jordan and Hector Hammond are a nice mix of spectacle and character drama, and most of the violence does have a bit of sting and acknowledgment.  The whole 'Green Lanterns use the ring to make contraptions' angle worked better than I expected it to.  I'm used to the DCAU Justice League cartoon, where John Stewart basically just used the ring to make green blasts of energy, so I was surprised how not goofy it looked when Jordan uses his ring to make slingshots, machine guns, and flamethrowers.  It's a matter of simplicity, as Jordan and the corp always go for the simplest solution, rather than being flashy for the sake of special effects.

Martin Campbell's Green Lantern is a cheerfully entertaining comic book adventure.  It does not transcend the genre (aside from perhaps Sarsgaard's disturbing character work), nor does it stand outside of it as the better superhero films tend to do (IE - X-Men: First Class as a 60s spy thriller, The Dark Knight as a hard boiled crime drama, etc).  It remains structurally flawed and arguably too short, but the film successfully balances a rather complicated mythology and a character arc without dropping the balls.  Its relatively well-acted and filled with engaging action sequences, decent special effects, and surprisingly solid 3D work.  Martin Campbell once again shows that he has a firm grasp on what should be the basics in genre filmmaking (adults who act like adults, character who react plausibly to the chaos around them, action scenes that make sense, violence that has consequence, etc), which helps overcome some of the script weaknesses.  Green Lantern just barely works, but considering my pessimism going into the screening last night, 'barely works' almost counts as a triumph.  

grade: B-

For reviews of Green Lantern: First Flight and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, click accordingly.

 

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