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Green Lantern

Reviewed by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

Director Martin Campbell
Length 114 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ****------
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 2

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“In brightest day, in darkest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil’s might beware my power - Green Lantern’s light!” If you can get through that sentence without cracking up, then you’ve won half the battle. It’s not just the fact that his unwieldy catch-phrase bears an uncanny resemblance to the motto of the U.S. postal service, but also that Green Lantern comes laden with a whole universe's worth of cosmic comic-book back story, which makes one of DC comics’ oldest superhero properties such a tough transition to the big screen.

It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the test of a true comic book fan is the ability to be engrossed, and indeed moved, by the exploits of the pan-galactic police force known as The Green Lantern Corps. Yet superhero movies have a complex relationship with fans. Fans can make or break a franchise, providing a guaranteed and evangelical audience base, but any really successful superhero movie has to reach beyond existing comic book fans to touch a chord with the wider public. And where die-hards may salivate at the prospect of seeing the planet Oa brought to life at the cinema, with its thousands of superpowered alien guardians and omniscient little blue men, the general public are likely to greet the sight with an overwhelming feeling of ‘Huh?’

It’s not likely to surprise anyone who saw the trailers for Green Lantern, which, even at two minutes were tonally uneven and underwhelming, that the film fails to negotiate the tricky task of balancing its appeals to both established fans and the more general blockbuster audience. The story is an uneasy mixture of entertaining Golden Age superhero hogwash, in which a dying alien bequeaths a power ring to a human test pilot, and portentous contemporary superhero hooey, in which a giant alien entity called Parallax threatens the entire universe with annihilation. In order to compress this into a manageable size, Green Lantern adopts the same strategy as Thor, spending half its running time in meandering exposition, trying to explain the galactic scale concepts at its core. What this signifies, more than anything else, is the movie’s staggering lack of faith in its own central premise. No one watching Star Wars (1977) needed to be told why Darth Vader’s lightsaber was red and Luke Skywalker’s was blue - writing morality into mise-en-scène was one of the first tricks the cinema learned. Yet Green Lantern is constantly reminding us of its not particularly complicated moral scheme: Green = Will = Good; Yellow = Fear = Bad. If this sounds clunky in description, just imagine it in dialogue. Even actors the quality of Mark Strong, playing villain-to-be Sinestro, struggle to sell this garbage.

Yet, when the film comes down to Earth it shows signs of intelligent life. For example, it is filled with proper actors doing a fine job with difficult material. Ryan Reynolds, often one of the more punchable faces in cinema, does an excellent job portraying Hal Jordan as a confused but heroic manchild, and Peter Sarsgaard adds an unexpected level of depth as Hector Hammond, the overlooked son of an ambitious senator. And for all its bluster, the story offers plenty of thematic depth, repeatedly providing subtle echoes of Jordan’s Top Gun-esque traumatic memories, and setting up well-handled parallels between his optimistic empowerment and Hammond’s Faustian pact with Parallax.

In fact, there’s a lot that’s good about Green Lantern, but the bits which are bad, or boring, or pointless, or derivative weigh down the whole experience, and leave you feeling irritated with the committee which made the film, and embarrassed for the actors whose fine performances are sullied by association with it. With higher highs and lower lows than Thor, finally the most positive thing which could come out of Green Lantern would be a bloody nose for the companies who keep making these lacklustre superheroic spectacles.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on June 20, 2011.