Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why Green Lantern's Light Sputtered And Died...





A looooong time ago I gave a glowing review to the screenplay of Green Lantern, by Berlanti, Green and Guggenheim. It seemed to be an almost perfect translation of the source material to the big screen. This was a superhero movie I was really looking forward to see.

Then it was released. And the reviews came in.

And I only got around to watching it yesterday. And every negative review was richly deserved.

What happened?

Well, at least one new version of the screenplay happened. I say 'at least one' because who knows how many people were involved with retooling the BGG-draft, and how many times was changed? Only those people in charge of the development process, I guess. And somehow, though many elements were retained, the final, filmed version manages to demonstrate most of the major screenwriting mistakes gurus, teachers, writers and bloggers warn against. Time and time again.

Now, I'm not saying that the flaws in the screenplay are the only reason for Green Lantern's failure to shine his light across the world-wide box office. Production design wasn't always succesful - the dark, murky world of Oa looks awful compared to the high-tech bright and shiny Oa of the comics, the GL costume didn't impress much (especially the face mask), the special effects were 'obviously' CGI and failed to excite, and maybe the whole Green Lantern power set doesn't end itself to live action too well.

Nevertheless, the shot version of the film is overloaded with basic storytelling mistakes.

Such as:

1) An exposition-heavy opening sequence which doesn't affect the audience in the least. We are told the history of the Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps, and their biggest enemy Parallax, who was imprisoned by one of the Lanterns. Fine. We're TOLD, not SHOWN any of this, and for people who know nothing of the GL mythology, the effect is bewilderment instead of excitement or being intrigued.

2) A lack of a central conflict which drives the narrative. Yes, there is a Parallax entity, and yes, there is a man called Hector Hammond who turns into a powerful, freaky telepath/telekinetic. But neither of them are after Hal Jordan's hide for most of the film. And Hal Jordan isn't hunting for them either, or preparing to defend his world, or trying to achieve a goal which the villains can thwart (unless his goal is to simply keep breathing. And even then, they only try to eliminate him in act 3). Only during act 3 do all the threads come together, but it's far too little far too late.

Obviously there is conflict in the movie, and the Parallax entity wants to destroy the Guardians and the Corps, but instead of gunning for their base planet of Oa, it decides to take a leasurely detour to Earth first (because, you know, what do we care if some far away planet we never heard of gets blown up?)because Hal Jordan got the ring of the Green Lantern who imprisoned Parallax before - but it isn't the ring, it's the willpower of the wearer which is essential.

3) Lack of a goal for the protagonist: Hal Jordan is a test pilot who gets fired and then is kidnapped by a green ring which is bequeathed to him by its alien wearer, Abin Sur. Jordan is then taken to Oa by the ring (against his will) for Green Lantern training. He doesn't do so well, and the scorn of lead Lantern Sinestro (well on his way to becoming the biggest Lantern villain ever)is enough to send Jordan packing back to Earth, basically quitting the Corps. For some reason the ring still works for him and he becomes an Earthbound superhero when Hector Hammond starts causing havoc - but there's nothing he wants to accomplish or achieve. He's either dragged around against his will, mopes around or jumps into the fray because that's what the audience knows heroes do.

4)A flawed, unclear character arc. Hal Jordan saw his test pilot father die when he was a child. Now, as an adult, he's a daredevil test pilot too, taking crazy risks and never obeying orders. Not exactly someone paralyzed by fear, rather someone who has conquered it by overcompensating. The only level on which Jordan is hampered by fear is when it comes to relationships - he runs away whenever things might get serious.

But that's in no way an issue when it comes to being a part of the Corps, or in standing up to Parallax. So when Jordan has to 'conquer his fear', the script cannot provide the necessary steps to make that evolution tangible. Basically, the hero 'learns' what he already knows how to do, and it's unclear why or how he learns it.
The biggest setback in the film comes when Jordan is defeated in training by Sinestro, who scorns him as being weak - and instead of fighting back, getting angry, or taking this as a motivation to change, Jordan meekly agrees with his trainer and flees back to Earth. But if he's such a wimp - how did he become an ace jet pilot who takes insane risks every day? By quitting at the first sign of trouble?

5) Pointless secondary characters. Jordan's buddy Tom is just there to serve as a sprechhund when necessary. Senator Hammond provides a chance to cast a familiar face (Tim Robbins) but the Senator has no impact on Hal's life, really. Carol Ferris, the great love of Jordan's life, is just that, a pretty girl who is there to nag at him in order to remind us just how screwed-up he is (as opposed to, you know, showing us how screwed-up he is). There's even a Jordan family reunion which turns out to be wholly incosnequential, because none of his family members are involved with the plot as it develops.

Nor are the other Green Lanterns particularly interesting: Sinestro is opposed to Jordan being a member, Kilowog's just a drill sergeant and Tamar-Re is just there to explain things to Jordan. None of these get any depth, or play off Jordan as a character in any interesting, non-clichéed way.

6) This one may be due to cutting out an essential bit of information from the script or in the editing room - When Hector Hammond develops his powers, he's captured by the secret government organization Checkmate and his father. They intend to experiment on him and either remove his powers or find a way to neutralize them. Hammond takes control of the lab telekinetically, disables the soldiers and straps his father to the examination table, in order to kill him. Suddenly, Green Lantern bursts through a wall and the fight is on!

Except - there's no reason for him to be there. He doesn't know about Hammond being captured, nor about him going berserk. He's just there because otherwise the bad guy will get away with his dastardly actions. It's not even a coincidence - which happens all the time in the comics - where the hero just happens to notice dodgy activity and decides to investigate because that's what heroes do.

The result is that the audience doesn't get caught up in an exciting action scene, but that the audience is going 'Whoa! Where did HE come from!!??' Which means you're losing your audience right at the time you want them to get maximally invested in your movie, because they're wondering about the cause-and-effect logic of what they're watching.

Is it all bad, then? Well... pretty much yes. The final shooting script does solve the one structural problem I had with the BGG script - there, the outer space action was resolved on Oa, after which Green Lantern returns to Earth and has to fight Hector Hammond. In the final film, Hammond gets taken care of before Jordan has to face Parallax (who doesn't get to Oa and doesn't have to face the entire Corps). So in this version, the third act does build more logically to a Big Climax. Too bad, then, that neither third act confrontation is truly memorable...

So, to sum up: a very good script got turned into a bad script, which led to a crappy movie and, more importantly, a stillborn movie franchise. There's a lesson here for you, Hollywood. If only you would learn it...

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