Full disclosure: If you're the typical American filmgoer, this reviewer knows more about Green Lantern than you do. This is not meant as a boast, but a simple statement of fact, given the character's relatively low level of name recognition and this reviewer's relatively high level of geekery.
Did you spend your youth devouring the four-color primary texts of Green Lanternalia? Did you, as a child, warm to the character only after spending hours poring over your copies of Who's Who in the DC Universe, searching in vain for any hero whose hair was brown like yours and not the ubiquitous black-with-blue-highlights? (Or the canary yellow meant to pass for blond?)
Consider: This reviewer went into the Green Lantern preview screening already knowing the numerical designation assigned to our neck of the intergalactic woods by wizened blue hydrocephalic immortals called the Guardians of the Universe. (Sector 2814, duh.) He was conversant with the performance specs of the weapon those same Guardians distribute to the 3,600 members of their intergalactic peacekeeping force — a ring that runs on willpower and allows its wielder to shape emerald-colored energy into any form imaginable — and he has been known, given sufficient encouragement and a sufficient number of drinks at sufficiently nerdy parties, to recite from memory the oath that Green Lanterns solemnly intone when recharging said rings from their batteries. (Yeah, you're just going to have trust him on that one).
Green Lantern, like many of its forebears in the burgeoning cinema du spandex, is an origin story. Ryan Reynolds' Hal Jordan undertakes a (super)hero's journey that transforms him from a cocky California test pilot to the first earthling representative of an elite corps of space cops. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, Hal's journey is mostly roadblocks and detours.
For one thing, the film splinters into three near-discrete storylines that don't play all that well together. There's Reynolds' fractious relationship with a fellow pilot played by Blake Lively; Peter Sarsgaard as a schlubby xenobiologist with daddy issues; and a muddy CGI space-opera involving an existential threat to the entire universe. Director Martin Campbell doles out choppy glimpses of each, effectively leaching the hour-and-45-minute film of much-needed momentum.
An evil cloud, to be sure, composed as it is of nothing less than the Yellow Power of Fear. It has a face like Monty Burns, and it's given to slurping up its victims' souls like so many bluepoint oysters, but even so: a cloud.
"This is the movie the fans want to see," star Reynolds has been saying in press junkets leading up to the film's premiere. Speaking as one such fan, this reviewer can tell you: Reynolds is right. And that's the problem.
Because it turns out that what works in the comics — geared, remember, for a small but deeply passionate demographic steeped in decades of arcana — comes across as hopelessly flimsy and contrived when upsized to fit the big screen. Gleefully pulpy dialogue that evaporates on the comics page — lines like, "You can't give in to fear! I know what it's like to be afraid to be afraid!" — land with a series of heavy wet thuds on the cement floor of the cineplex.
Dense back story about the intergalactic struggle between the powers of Will and Fear — lore in which the character is steeped, and in which fans exult — gets delivered in thick clots of stentorian exposition robbed of any spark of fun or adventure. Information that's meant to lend an epic sweep to the proceedings instead seems merely insular, hermetic and, yes, hokey.
The film's most frustrating quality is its eagerness to double back to connect its own dots, as if it believes it needs to carefully walk us through its conflict between a buff, handsome hero and an evil squid cloud. "Explain it to me, Hal," says Lively, after the audience has witnessed not one but several scenes dramatizing the very point about which she seems so doggedly, damnably curious.
Certainly there have been plenty of comics-to-films adaptations derailed by the structural demands of the Hollywood blockbuster; in formulaic movies like Elektra and X-Men: The Last Stand, the hammy fists of studio executives can be plainly felt. Green Lantern goes wrong in precisely the opposite direction: It never quite frees itself from the gravitational pull of fan service long enough to tell a story that nonfans could be bothered to care much about.
Sadder still, even the character's fans will come away believing their hero has been done a vague disservice by the film. They'll enjoy the competently realized battle scenes, and acknowledge Reynolds' ab-tastic charms, yet wish the filmmakers had possessed the will, and the courage, to generate a steadier, more powerful light.