Green Lantern: First Flight Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • DC's animated wing has been toiling merrily away bringing class TV shows and movie spin-offs to us for years now, and each new title that comes along has been something to celebrate. But with Hal Jordan's long-awaited full-length movie debut, Green Lantern: First Flight, I would say that they've finally stumbled. Batman: Gotham Knight was a brave attempt to do something a little different, and met with a fair degree of apathy, and even some disdain for its schizophrenic approach to the Caped Crusader, yet this avant-garde and multi-stylised anthology was a definite slow-grower that did, indeed, get better over time. But Wonder Woman leapt right back on track immediately with a pulverising take on the character that remained faithful to the source yet found a terrific way to bring Amazon princess up to date without short-changing the fans or losing credibility. Now, with a scenario that may not be everyone's cup of tea - the Green Lantern saga is definitely one that has maintained a core legion of intensely loyal fans, but seems to go strangely unadopted by newcomers - DC play it irredeemably safe and literally just go for the most obvious and linear tale of all.

    Test-pilot Hal Jordan, the supposedly “worthiest” human being on the planet, has had his origin story of how he came to assume the infeasibly huge responsibility of policeman for the universe run through a couple of times already, which is nothing, of course, when compared to Bruce Wayne's tragic beginnings which seems to get redone almost every month, but writer Alan Burnett, in adapting Geoff Johns' comic-book run, and director Lauren Montgomery (of Wonder Woman) simply use this as a pre-title kick-start into the all-American hero's first intergalactic odyssey. When a mortally wounded alien copper - one of the Green Lantern Corps - crash-lands on Earth, his dying task is to summon a successor, someone whom the ring of power that he, and all of his cohorts, wear locates from the planet's population. Conveniently, rascally Hal Jordan (Christopher Meloni) isn't that far away, cracking jokes and innuendos from his simulator at a US Air Force base. Cryptically given the ring and the dubious honour of serving on the Lantern team, Jordan cosmically receives a fetching green and black costume, the power of flight and the best gift of all - the ability to create absolutely anything his imagination can conjure ... so long as it comes in green. But before he can even say yes or no, the alien kicks the celestial bucket and Jordan is summoned to a distant part of the universe to take part in a galactic version of The Apprentice, with grumbly chimp, Sir Alan Sugar, having been split into a dozen, diminutive egg-heads with the power to control, well, everything so long as the awesome universal building block of the Green Element remains free from jeopardy.

    Ahh ... now, you see, Jordan's virtually unwanted arrival on the scene just happens to coincide with the heinous scheme of nasty turncoat Lantern, Sinestro (erm, there's a bit of a clue as regards to the crimson-faced villain's true leanings in his name, so they really should have guessed, shouldn't they?), to usurp power from the magical little blue Yodas and assume universal dominance for himself. Aye, it's that old desperately jealous ego-trip scam all over again, as championed by many a Bond-maniac. To aid him in his nefarious, galaxy-swallowing plan, Sinestro (voiced with English upper-class smarm by Victor Garber) is hoping to harness the power of the one element that can defeat the all-mighty Green, which is ... drum-roll, if you please ... Yellow!

    Thus, the wheels of the universe are threatened with all manner of explosive mayhem. Order is in for a rough ride and the usually stalwart Green Lantern Corps are going to come a-cropper. With treachery, murder and distrust ripping away at the fabric of this once illustrious cadre of space-hopping do-gooders, it falls to the new boy to unearth the scoundrel behind it all and find the typically unpredictable and undisciplined human guts to fight the good fight and restore the balance.

    The voice cast is excellent. Garber clearly revels in his character's snivelling, snidey ways and, once again, it seems that America can't abide a villain with anything other than an English aristocratic bent. Michael Madsen lends some gruff likeability to the alien wart-hog-headed brute, Kilowatt and Tricia Helfer adds that now-obligatory glacial beauty to the tones of Boudicca. If you listen out for him, DC Animated producer Bruce Timm can be heard as Bug-boy and even Darkman's Larry Drake crops up too. As Hal Jordan, Meloni is virtually indistinguishable from any other animated Yankee hero, but at least the voice fits the jutting chin and that playful flick of hair. Humour isn't high on the agenda, though, which is certainly refreshing. So often, there is that distinctly unrealistic and actually quite irritating wise-crackery going on with these fish-out-water set-ups, but First Flight, at least, dispenses with that for most of the time.

    Lauren Montgomery is fast becoming the Kathryn Bigelow of animated movies. (By the way, have you seen Bigelow, these days? Even at 57, she is absolutely stunning!) Providing ball-bashing machismo and intensely wild action sequences, the director latches-on to a schoolboy's thirst for pulverising destruction and punishing violence. Wonder Woman was surprisingly brutal in places and Green Lantern has its wince-inducing moments, too. Characters getting impaled on spiky metal things and sliding bloodily downwards, and a space-age version of police rough-housing with a suspect are just a couple of the PG-13 delights on offer. The film also throws in a few little expletives here and there which, although tame by anyone's standards, also come across as a bit anachronistic considering the immense scale that we are operating on here. A pint-size galactic boffin retaliating to an improbable deal with “Like hell!” just doesn't sound right, and nor does Sinestro informing Hal, in his Training Day initiation, that he owns his “ass”. However, Garber does do a fine lip curling rendition of the word “bastard” as he attempts to root out his nemesis later on that is gloriously caddish.

    The animation is better presented here than in some of the other titles from DC and, once again, totally kicks Marvel's butt. In First Flight, there are no blurred edges, or line details to creep into the fast-flowing visual sheen. Everything looks tight and clean and positively radiant. Green is obviously the order the order of the day and, man, is it captivating. The palette is always striking, and it is great that some of the more unusual colours get in on the act, too. Purples, oranges and various subtler shades of these help keep the picture alive and scintillating. The action is terrifically choreographed, although I will say that I was getting a little fed up with characters getting kicked, punched or laser-beamed through tough objects and then on out of the other side. Here, they go through walls, buildings, canyons and even asteroids as though the compositions of each were little more than tissue-paper. When Hal gets bashed-about on a renegade starship, there is even great little shot of him gasping and raising his arms to shield himself from a viciously hefted chunk of ripped steel - a nice reminder that, even with a powerful Green forcefield, you can never be too sure.

    There is a nice creepy little sequence when the nefarious, but rather ineffectual squid mobster, Kanjar-Ro (voiced by Kurtwood Smith who, ironically, actually looks more like one of the Guardians, in real life) is brought briefly back from the dead to serve another purpose - a deliciously dark idea that even evokes memories of Pushing Daisies. Another great scene has us meeting the mysterious Weaponers, a race of studious bug-like engineers who can be hired to create and perfect the means of mass destruction. An eerie element, this, and a wonderfully atmospheric and thoroughly alien set-piece. They all speak with the same raspy voice, scuttle about on spidery legs and enjoy the intricacies of dabbling in toys of death. And a clever touch is that, once done, they have no need to fear their latest creation for they can then simply return to “their universe”. Such heavier SF elements are very welcome in this story, though actually few and far between. Green Lantern tales, aside from his JLA duties, are at their best when they deal with the cosmic, rather than the Earth-bound. In the hands of a good, imaginative writer and illustrator, these can be exceptionally vivid, surreal and mind-blowing. Rather like the best of Silver Surfer or Doctor Strange, it is the worlds apart that paint the most effective, challenging and unbridled of their adventures. Hal Jordan belongs in the cosmos, policing the galactic frontiers, and this film, to its credit, gets that right by staying star-spun for virtually all of its running time.

    But, even though this is action-packed stuff and riotously energetic, Montgomery's film falls short of its potential by a good margin. In its headlong rush to smash, bash and crash, the story forgets to properly engage on any level other its superficial visual razzmatazz. Only Sinestro - who really should have a little goatee-beard to complete his diabolical appearance - has any true sense of character, any meat to his bones. Jordan is just, ahem, yet another hero finding his sense of purpose, his true calling. Previous versions have capitalised on his tenacious qualities as an out-and-out adrenaline-junkie, crossed with a Silver Age romantic lead. In this movie, he is basically just a beefcake who is there at the right time, and we get no depth or texture to his character whatsoever. Pilot, one minute, intergalactic Marshall, the next. Once the opening titles - as spectacular as they are - have whirled by us, he's off gallivanting, and Earth and his relationships there, are utterly forgotten about until a completely throwaway remark at the end. Somehow, this renders the saga cheaper, less considered and much less human as a result.

    Thus, Green Lantern: First Flight is, ultimately, a disappointment. There is a same-old, same-old quality to it that reduces all of its battles and spectacle to redundant, far too familiar tedium that rushes swiftly towards a greater, well, nothing. A gorgeously explosive nothing, I'll grant you that, but a big pile of nothing, just the same. The fate of the universe is a too-easy scenario and something that smacks of the creative team cramming in all the “Big Moments” because they doubt they'll get a second chance to do so. In this way, telling thisparticular story, they seem to have boxed themselves into a corner. If there is another Green Lantern animated movie - and I hope there is - his mission will inevitably be smaller in scale, which is precisely what this opener should have been. Jordan should have been given time to assimilate his new powers, this entire brain-boggling concept of being able to travel the universe and meet a million other races and civilisations just in a day's work isn't even given a nanosecond to sink in. He simply accepts it all - the birth and Guardianship of the cosmos and his place within it - in the blink of an eye. Now I'm not saying that this feature-length origin should have been largely devoted to introspection, soul-searching and his understanding of the bigger picture, at all. Not a bit of it. While it is great to hit the ground running, the film's whistle-stop determination to “cut to the chase” is breakneck to the point of leaving our association with the quest far behind. Jordan comes across a dying alien, is awarded super-powers, confronted by dubious fellow Lanterns and catapulted into a distant galaxy to pitch his suitability to wear the ring to a circle of midget Einsteins, and then heaved into a situation that could overthrow and enslave the entire universe ... pant, pant ... and ... now breathe. It is just too much too soon. And way too silly. This story would have been far more impressive if it had given Jordan a smaller-scale, but still massively dangerous mission to go on - one that still proved his judgement, courage and ability to the Corps and to the Guardians, but did so with a bit more believable development. As it stands, this outing just feels too condensed for what could have been an intelligent build-up to grander things.

    Against all the odds, DC's previous animated movie venture, Wonder Woman (reviewed separately) was actually a great all-rounder and a really pleasant surprise. First Flight drops the ball and descends with it into tedium and stock situations of power-struggle and yawn-inducing megalomania. What galls me most is that everyone involved with this made great statements about the movie, hailing it as something really exciting and important in the universe of the Green Lantern, a newer, fresher take on Hal Jordan's origin story and a project that would have fans rejoicing. Well, I may not be the biggest fan of the character, but I am a consistent one, and this is not the story I had wanted to see. Nothing here felt new, fresh or all that exciting. Whereas Wonder Woman was something that I thought I would only partially take to, I sat pretty much enthralled by it all the way through and have, in fact, enjoyed re-watching it since, it is hard to get past the poor writing, lame situations and all-round mundaneness of this more recent production. Great big explosions and super-vibrant cosmic dust-ups are plastered all over the screen, of that there can be no doubt. But none of it matters one iota. Sinestro is a snivelling, 'tache-twirling cad who elicits nothing in the way of truly memorable menace. The aliens at the heart of his plot look much too formulaic - we've seen their ilk too often in the likes of JLA - and they come across as both easily spooked and thoroughly bereft of threat.

    Plus, the sight of two orb-like galactic lanterns - one green and one yellow - zapping away and transforming the screen with either hue during the, admittedly, hyper-kinetic finale, can be a tad ridiculous. Although the vision of the two rivals battling it out in the distance and observed only as flashes of either colour pulsing in the heavens is a finely surreal one.

    But this is still an enjoyable excuse for a powerfully retina-scorching experience, and one that is certainly diverting enough for comic-book lovers, both old and young. I may be being a little too harsh on what is, at its core, just a comic-book adaptation and, with this in mind, I will still award the film a lucky 7 out of 10 for sheer colourful action and adventure. The Green Lantern has never attained the grandeur or mythos of the more famous DC super-characters, and it is a shame that this adventure will probably do little to rectify that.

    Ahh, well ... there's still the live-action version to come.

    The Rundown

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