...shining light on the media, one review at a time
After watching Green Lantern, a realization hit me: I’m spoiled. Thanks to changes instigated by features like Batman Begins and continued in titles like Thor and X-Men: First Class, most recent superhero tales that hit the big screen offer a complexity, with thematic and character depth, that was formerly unheard of for the genre. This elevation of superhero action movies has also included a higher caliber of acting and more artistic direction—elements which add a previously absent artistry and power to the films.
Sadly, Green Lantern harkens back to the old days, when all that was required of a superhero flick was elaborate special effects, lots of explosions, and a guy in tights. Added to this disappointment is the muddling of an already simplistic theme and plentiful doses of the profanity, violence, and other offensive content that has also come to define the genre. The result? A movie that fails to cast the kind of inspiring, entertaining light it could have.
Green Lantern starts by putting its best foot forward with an impressive display of visual effects that enables the backstory of the primary antagonist for the film to be told. Polished CGI is the strength of this movie, and the filmmakers use it well to dramatize the rise of the ring of guardians, called Green Lanterns, who are stationed throughout the universe to keep peace and fight against the evil that would otherwise consume all life. In this tale, that evil takes the form of Parallax, a monstrous creature who is the embodiment of fear itself. Thus, we are introduced to the evil side of the film’s thematic center. Parallax, who gets his life energy by literally feeding on the fear of others, including entire planets, must be stopped.
The current group of Green Lanterns, however, is not strong enough to defeat Parallax. Abin Sur, the only Green Lantern who was able to beat Parallax in the past, is ambushed by the monster and fatally injured. Before he dies, he seeks a successor to his Green Lantern power. Enter our “hero,” Hal Jordan, who is sought out and chosen by Abin Sur’s green ring. Like many other superhero films, we get to see the “before” of the central character’s development. As is often the case, the character of pre-hero Hal isn’t pretty.
The first time we see him, Hal is waking up beside a woman he apparently barely knows, though he evidently spent an intimate night with her. He leaves the scene and the woman abruptly, as he is late for work. In this introductory sequence, the filmmakers do a thorough job making sure we understand that Hal is irresponsible and untrustworthy, but a highly skilled airline test pilot.
On the upside, Hal pulls a life-risking stunt while flying in a test competition against fully-automated aircraft, which would suggest he has great courage. But we’re witness to the fact that he locks up in fear, as he is assaulted by flashbacks to his father’s tragic death in a plane explosion. While the premise of such a memory is dramatic and realistic, its placement in the midst of Hal’s plummet to Earth starts to feel heavy-handed when the filmmakers carry the memories on for an extensive period, long enough to make sure the audience absorbs the full backstory. Subtlety, however, does not seem to be the mode of choice for this film.
The theme quickly becomes obvious, as we see this story is to be a battle between fear and courage…or is it? Ordinarily, this message should be a positive one, despite the simplistic packaging in this film that will leave artists yearning for something more sophisticated. But perhaps the idea is indeed too simple, since the filmmakers somehow manage to get tripped up on it. The problem comes with a confusion of courage and will, which ends up severely weakening, if not completely undermining, the beneficial aspects of the theme.
At the crux of Hal’s emotional journey is his realization that to be a Green Lantern or a strong person one does not have to be without fear. Rather, he discovers that having the courage to overcome fear is what makes a hero. At least, that’s what he seems to learn at one point. The message becomes blurred with the contradictory premise that the Green Lantern’s superpowers come not from courage, but from the force of his will when he is wearing the green ring. The stronger the ring-bearer’s will, which in this case seems to mean a disposition to act and emotional self-control, the more powerful he will be.
The presence of these two concepts, courage and will, need not have been contradictory, had the filmmakers bothered to develop them as multiple, layered themes. Instead, the ideas take turns stepping on each others’ toes, as characters occasionally seem to view will and courage as the same thing, while heroic acts and powers are credited sometimes to will and other times to courage. It’s as if the film’s creative team couldn’t quite decide which theme they wanted to develop, so they threw in both without spending any effort on making the combination work.
As a result, we reach the climax of the movie with an understanding that Hal’s primary strength against the evil he faces is his courage—an ability to do what is right despite his fear. [SPOILER WARNING] Yet when our hero comes face-to-face with Parallax at the end of their battle, he holds firm, staring into the monster’s face as Parallax is unable to feed on Hal because he has no fear. The Green Lantern is protected, then, not by courage, but through the force of his will, which has rendered him fearless.
The significance of this thematic switch not only weakens the structure of the story, but also removes most of its redeeming value. It is of far greater worth to teach people to have the courage to act rightly, even when they are afraid, than to tell them that the only way to overcome fear and evil is essentially to buck up and decide, through sheer willpower, to become fearless.
Choked by simplicity and indecisiveness, the story flickers weakly, with no hope of resuscitation from the other production elements. While the acting in this film isn’t bad, it isn’t great either. With the exception of Peter Sarsgaard, who plays the lesser antagonist Hector Hammond with the disturbing authenticity he always manages to bring to villainous roles, the actors otherwise deliver exactly what their rather flat roles require and nothing more.
Unfortunately, this film would need at least a sophisticated script and powerful acting to even hope to counterbalance the offensive and immoral content it contains. Perhaps the most noxious is the extravagant use of profanities, including heavy misuse of God’s name. The evil that spews out of the mouths of those who are supposed to be fighting such darkness is accompanied by a modern, casual view of sex.
Given Hal’s first scene, it’s clear that he is essentially a playboy. It is no surprise, then, that Hal and Carol Ferris, his primary love-interest for most of the film, have been intimate in the past. Even worse, they refer to that aspect of their relationship more than once with an offhanded humor that tries to make such behavior the modern dating standard. Add the abundant violence that has become expected in action films, which here includes horror-esque, graphically rendered sequences of screaming victims having their fearful souls sucked out of them, and any semblance of light one could see in the evil-fighting powers of the Green Lantern is completely snuffed out.
In days gone by, my then low expectations for superhero movies might have prevented disappointment in Green Lantern’s middling production quality. Improvements in the genre have led to higher artistic standards, however, that this film doesn’t meet. But what really keeps this movie from being a good popcorn-popper with which to while away a summer evening is the amount of detrimental content that comes with it.
In the midst of the movie’s effort to entertain and excite, Green Lantern fails even to deliver on the superhero’s oath itself: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power…Green Lantern’s light.” Considering that Hal contributes much to the deleteriousness of this film, he clearly overlooks a good deal of evil. In the end, Hal gives many indications of being, perhaps unaware, among the very worshippers of evil who do indeed need transforming illumination. Unfortunately, no one is going to find any such redeeming light in this film.