Is it possible for a three hundred million dollar film to be an underdog? Consider the evidence:
1) Online buzz so overwhelmingly negative that the marketing professionals at Warner Bros. had to switch their overall strategy no less than three times. 2) A grizzled craftsman of a director who’s revived multiple commercial franchises but has virtually zero name recognition. 3) A leading man whose best known for appearing in one of the most disastrous comic-book adaptations of all-time. 4) A property whose hero and requisite backstory somehow manages to be both goofy and opaque. 5) A title character who is so unfamiliar to the average filmgoer that the very existence of this super-budgeted would-be blockbuster is its own set-up and punchline. 6) Some of the most scathing reviews of the year. 7) The reputation of being a flop on impact despite opening number one around the world and raking in an absurd amount of cash. 8) Jett’s knee-jerk response to the idea of reviewing the film in question (as heard on TFT 178) which was either “oof” or “woof.” Anyway you slice it, things are looking pretty rotten. And just ask Ang Lee, Eric Bana, Louis Leterrier, Edward Norton, Michael Gondry, Seth Rogen or Bruce Lee if you don’t believe me. It ain’t easy being green.
“Green Lantern” has emerged, for whatever reason, as the film to hate in 2011. It has become the designated whipping boy for all the crimes perpetrated by the recent flood of comic-book inspired cinema. Where “Thor” has narrowly succeeded with audiences and “X-Men: First Class” has completely won over critics (to my continued astonishment), this film has stumbled and, depending on who you read, already belly-flopped in infamy. Those who smell blood in the water are relishing this moment. One notable online outlet has even expressed perplexed outrage that there isn’t MORE hatred being heaped on this 2nd-tier geek property. All of which is fascinating, and truth be told, more interesting than the film itself, which plays out as “Top Gun” in space. But is it justified? Is “Green Lantern” the worst superhero movie of all time, the “end of the gravy train” for that particularly disreputable subgenre?
I don’t think so. It should come as no surprise to say the film has its shortcomings. In fact, most of the finer details of its screenplay are often too rushed, too convoluted or too out of nowhere. We don’t learn about the central romantic triangle until halfway through the film. Hell, we don’t even know which characters know each other until they meet up and quickly inform one another how long they’ve know each other. The secondary villain, played by Peter Sarsgaard as an affable creep, is revealed to be completely superfluous beyond being a physical and psychological punching bag for just about every other character. Our protagonist is granted the most amazing power in the universe but has difficulty expressing any emotion beyond inert sadness. And the aforementioned marketing materials, which promised a wall-to-wall emerald fantasia of CGI one-upsmanship, were unfortunately misleading.
I saw “unfortunately misleading” because the CG elements and action set-pieces are far and away the most compelling aspects of the film. At times they’re exhilarating. Don’t take any of this as faint praise. As action-movie egghead David Bordwell has argued with scientific precision, movement in the frame and rhythmically engaging editing can be as emotionally profound and visually poetic as more traditionally vaunted fare. Director Martin Campbell has spent the better part of his career honing these instincts and when he gets a chance to employ them here, he does not disappoint. Whether it’s hero Hal Jordan turning a falling helicopter into a giant-sized Hot Wheel (complete with half-mile, glisteningly green ramp) or well-dressed space monsters outwitting our human protagonist with a rapid-fire series of “power ring” constructs or the primary villain Parallax sucking the flesh of his victims’ skeletons, the “Green Lantern” serves as a one-film justification for the very existence of CGI. Has any film ever made been better suited to its unrealistic, imagination-expanding opportunities? The stronger sequences, including basically everything in outer space, make a compelling argument for “Green Lantern” to be nominated for Best Animated Film (featuring Ryan Reynold’s head).
In the end “Green Lantern” is neither a staggering success nor a genre-killing failure, although it’s hard not to root for a comic-book film that takes time to mock Christian Bale’s carcinogenic Batman voice . More similar to Joe Johnston’s “The Rocketeer” – and make no mistake, it’s shot in total “Joe Johnston-vision” with warm browns and yellows and soft shafts of light – than to “Thor” or “Iron Man;” it’s a space opera with a nostalgic heart. It’s also the latest in a line of films including such luminaries as “Heaven’s Gate” and “Ishtar” whose virtues or faults where eclipsed by the supposed obscenity of its budget.* The particular pleasures of watching Green Lantern are found not in its accomplishments, but in its possibilities. Can’t wait for the sequel.
*Speaking of which, it’s a pet peeve of my whenever people bemoan a certain film’s eye-popping budget and mourn the dozens or hundreds of indie films that could have been made in its place. As someone who is both a fan and participant of independent cinema, I feel the need to point out that whoever is funding the mega-movies has NO INTEREST in micro-budgeted fare and would never in a million years have put their name on something like “Meek’s Cutoff.” The cash for these disparate types of films come from different galaxies.**
**It should also be noted that when a film’s budget balloons during production or postproduction that extra, “indecent” cash is going into the wallets and purses of grips and gaffers and sleep-deprived CG artists, not the fur-lined pockets of executive producers.