Like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, Martin Campbell's Green Lantern (Warner Bros.) begins at the very beginning: the origins of the universe. * And like The Tree of Life, Green Lantern relies on extensive voice-over as it links those cataclysmic intergalactic events to the life of one mortal, vulnerable man. True, The Tree of Life doesn't include a giant many-tentacled villain named Parallax who subsists on the fear of his victims, or a magical glowing green ring that lends its wearer superhuman strength and the ability to fly, or a purple-blooded alien crash-landing in a swamp. But Malick is rumored to be preparing a six-hour director's cut, so you never know.
Another basic difference is that Tree of Life is already a front-runner for the best film I will see this year, whereas Green Lantern is a powerful contender for the worst. Even by the standards of the current run of mediocre comic-book movies, this one stands out for its egregious shoddiness. Its characters, dialogue, and pacing recall a destined-to-be-canceled Saturday morning cartoon from the early '80s or possibly an extended Hasbro infomercial.
Green Lantern opening voice-over informs us, in a massive data dump of exposition, that the Guardians, ancient keepers of the universal order who resemble the large-skulled aliens from the pilot episode of Star Trek, have created a "galactic community of peacekeepers." This corps of 3,600 green-clad recruits is taught to harness "the emerald energy of willpower" in order to defend justice across the cosmos. When one of these do-gooders crashes his spaceship on Earth and realizes death is near, he sends his ring, or a green ball of energy emanating from the ring—something green, anyway—to search for a worthy successor. Inexplicably, the verdant glow alights on Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a womanizing hot-dog pilot who's just been fired from his job testing state-of-the-art military aircraft for an aviation contractor. Hal has an endless supply of macho bravado but no real courage. His ex-girlfriend and fellow pilot Carol (Blake Lively) gives it to him straight: Hal is an immature, irresponsible twit, perhaps due to unresolved grief over his pilot father's untimely death. (Are there any superheroes with unproblematic fathers? Caped crusaders who just call their dads on Sundays to talk sports?)
Hal figures out how to charge the ring with energy from a lantern the dying alien also gave him (a process not dissimilar from syncing your iPhone), and in no time he's traveling to the planet of Oa, a sort of Camp Pendleton for Lantern recruits, where he's given a crash course in the use of his new powers. But soon Hal must return to Earth to test his mettle against a double threat. There's the abovementioned Parallax, a city-block-sized galactic invader who's sort of an ash cloud in the shape of a fanged octopus. (I'll grant the movie this: Parallax's animated swirling smoke-tentacles look pretty rad.) The planet's survival is also threatened by a more human enemy, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), a biologist who, while dissecting the body of the alien, was infected with an organism from its blood that's slowly taken over his body and deformed him horribly. In his pre-transformation phase, Sarsgaard makes a pretty good villain-to-be, with his quiet demeanor and creepily insinuating voice. (Nobody creepily insinuates like Peter Sarsgaard.) But when he turns into the giant-skulled, slavering version of himself, Sarsgaard overacts almost desperately, as if struggling to be seen and heard under what must have been a very uncomfortable latex head.
A word about Ryan Reynolds: Though he's not able to harness the emerald energy of willpower to save Green Lantern from destruction, he's also not at fault for the disaster. This is an actor who, perhaps because of his network-television-grade handsomeness, initially struck me as pleasantly bland. Then he made Adventureland, in which he was outstanding as a pitiful amusement-park Lothario, and I realized that Reynolds has the same problem as the young Brad Pitt: He's so good-looking that no one realizes how funny he is. Used in the right roles, Ryan Reynolds could develop into a comic actor with the timing of a Paul Rudd and the body of a … slightly hunkier Paul Rudd. Use your powers wisely, Green Lantern. Turn down the role in the inevitable sequel, and swoop in to save romantic comedy.
Correction, June 17, 2011: This review originally included an article in the title of the movie. It's Green Lantern, not The Green Lantern. ( Return to corrected sentence.)