Thursday 16 June 2011

Needs more oil: "Green Lantern"

I cannot tell a lie: I first saw the full trailer for Green Lantern in a packed public screening of its studio's penultimate Harry Potter movie, and as the last of its sensurround explosions subsided, I turned to my companions - as did everybody else in the auditorium that night - and collectively, with all the energy our popcorn-wearied shoulders could muster, we came to exchange one almighty shrug of meh. An uncertain running time for the finished product (not 143, as first threatened, but a possibly foreshortened 112) only added to the heavy sense of imminent disappointment; by the time I actually found myself sitting through Lantern's cosmically terrible prologue, which has current enunciator of choice Geoffrey Rush mouthing some ropey old bollocks about CG monsters in outer space - a race of domeheads rather like the Martians in Mars Attacks!, only one we're supposed to take entirely seriously - I'd practically given up the ghost for good. In the end, one concludes, there was genius in that trailer, which did its job in managing expectations: the film is entirely meh.

Ryan Reynolds, at his least engaging in buff action-figure roles, plays Hal Jordan, one of those alpha-male jocks who don't really need superpowers to get ahead, or laid: in the opening ten minutes of Green Lantern alone, he leaves behind an unnamed conquest in his bed ("There's water in the tap") to swap sexually loaded badinage with Blake Lively's Carol Ferris, his erstwhile flame and present boss (!) at the airforce base where Jordan is employed testing fighter planes. One night, for a reason none of the four screenwriters seems willing to explain, Hal is beamed to a seashore, where a dying alien bequeathes him a magical green ring and a matching lantern; these items, as well as bestowing upon the bearer membership of the evil-fighting Green Lantern Corps, combine to grant Hal superhuman strength, a new and wholly flattering Lycra wardrobe, and the ability to fly without the backing of the U.S. Air Force. Well, you know, some guys have all the luck.

It's notionally helmed by Martin Campbell, who had fun on the Zorro films and the James Bond revivals, but the stunts there were chiefly analogue, where Green Lantern is intended as a product of the virtual age: this is one of those instances where direction translates as signing off on whatever the visual effects team have been wanking themselves into a frenzy over this week. Like the recent Thor, Green Lantern tries to involve us in the business of two distinct worlds at once - the "real" world, and this flimsy digital spacescape - but the hero's progress between them is arbitrary, as though the screenwriters had simply taken turns submitting scenes, inserting (mostly unfunny) comic interludes whenever someone amongst them drew a blank.

You scan the frames of this committee-derived emission for pockets of interest, but even the better actors in this cast are defeated by the towering mediocrity of the enterprise. Mark Strong, as the leader of the Lantern Corps, never gets past having to wear silly pointy ears and styling straight out of the extras department of Flash Gordon. Peter Sarsgaard, working to inject a little of his usual good intelligence beneath a phony hairline and (later) John Merrick make-up that really wasn't worth the effort, has one half-amusing scene acting weird around Lively, but he's stuck in the role of the corruptible scientist we all know will end up becoming a punching bag for the hero to test his new-found powers against.

Angela Bassett's scenes as an ambulant labcoat would appear to have been the most prominent casualties of any possible recut, although the character's utterly hackneyed backstory - she's black, so she must have been a victim of gang violence! - has survived intact. (Indeed, Green Lantern's very whiteness may be an issue: in the week we learned the screenwriters of the planned Dam Busters remake have felt obliged to change the name of the regiment's dog on the grounds of racial sensitivity, is there not something a little off about the casting of Michael Clarke Duncan as a hulking brute called Kilowog?)

Belatedly, the film gets its head out of the laboratory and develops a vaguely stirring sense of scale, tracing the trajectory of Hydra-like dust clouds as they terrorise downtown L.A., yet even this sequence owes its frissons to the fact it has so clearly been modelled on the footage of Manhattanites fleeing the detritus caused by the collapsing Twin Towers on 9/11. After that, however, we're lost in space once more, and what Green Lantern might most effectively demonstrate is the extent to which the bar for comic-book movies have been raised over the past decade.

Those dust clouds would almost certainly have been verboten in the immediate wake of September 2001, but everything else about Campbell's film - which might just about have served a purpose in the summer of The Mummy Returns and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - now looks average indeed entering a marketplace where even the merely solid X-Men prequel offers a better series of bangs for your buck. Through saturation of that market (and the phenomena that were HP7a and Inception), Warner Bros. made more money than any other studio last year, but they've displayed no particular form recently with this kind of material: while more competent than Jonah Hex, and less obnoxious than Zack Snyder's recent offerings, Green Lantern remains fundamentally joyless, and a clear indication we're now a long way down the barrel of potential franchises. No need for a sequel, thanks.

Green Lantern opens nationwide tomorrow.

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