It’s 10 minutes before a human character appears on-screen in Green Lantern, a personality-free franchise-launcher that builds toward a quaint, if explosive, argument in favor of the nebulous quality of “humanity.”
Via a heavily CGI’d prologue, we learn that The Universe is patrolled by a group of fearless, multi-species warriors called The Green Lantern Corps––and, yes, each member is issued an actual old-school camping lantern, which they use to recharge the clunky rings that allow them to harness “the emerald energy of willpower” to “create what you see in your mind.” A new threat known as the Parallax—illustrated as a constantly morphing mass of something like flesh blended with rock, almost an Anselm Kiefer construction anthropomorphized—has managed to kill four members of the Corps, including an arrogant purple humanoid alien who crashes on Earth and uses his last breaths to command that his ring seek out his replacement.
The ring ropes in Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a bad-boy but regular-old-human pilot given to a specific brand of cockiness that manifests itself via conspicuous self-deprecation. “I may be a total screw-up in every other part of life, but the one thing I do know how to do is fly,” he says, after nearly dying in a test-flight exercise when he’s suddenly distracted by an attack of convenient exposition––er, that is, an uncontrollable flashback to the plane-crash death of his own dad. Hal doesn’t give himself enough credit: He also knows how to flirt, often via terrible double entendre, with Carol (Blake Lively), a former girlfriend now in line to run her father’s aircraft company.
Shortly after the ring finds him, Hal is transported via a green energy bubble into space, where he meets Lantern leader Sinestro (Mark Strong), an alien who is skeptical that a human could have the skill and intelligence to make it in the Corps. Hal, ever the self-saboteur, is also sure there must have been some kind of mistake, and he takes the first opportunity to escape this new assignment. But then the Parallax gets its hooks into Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), a scientist creepily obsessed with Carol, and from there somehow it becomes apparent that the future of the Earth is in danger, so, you know. . . .
I could easily fill pages running down the plot obstacles that Lantern director Martin Campbell soullessly cycles through; identifying all the characters introduced by the film’s four screenwriters, only to be easily disposed of; and “explaining” the complete hodgepodge of psychological cause-and-effects, from the pervasive daddy issues and complete absence of mothers, to the arbitrary, less-than-convincing confidence issues that Hal is able to surmount as soon as it becomes clear that Carol really wants to kiss him. But the movie never bothers to suggest that any of that really matters: Campbell’s ADD style privileges spectacle over story—so much so that the film never rewards the viewer for even trying to keep track of what is going on.
So you give up, and instead try to grab on to the small pleasures, which momentarily distract from the fact that the narrative is nonsensical, the characters so boilerplate that their every action seem preordained from the earliest frames, even as the action on-screen is often incoherent. Sarsgaard, with a major latex assist, gives a grand camp performance only rivaled in the last 12 months by Michael Sheen in Tron: Legacy. While hardly even registering as a villain, the Parallax is a breathtaking visual idea––roasting its victims alive while simultaneously slurping up their flesh, the entire maneuver rendered as a lacy spray of golden fire and charcoal ash.
This is pure cinematic magic, but the motives of the menace are muddled if not completely opaque. And while Reynolds isn’t a sharp enough actor to really find the crackle in his standard-issue superhero wisecracks, his body is a marvel of precision sculpting. As he breathes in and out in the skin-tight, digitally enhanced Lantern suit, each abdominal muscle seems to pulse independently. It’s transfixing––and the closest Green Lantern gets to character detail.