Whether it is a man dressing up as a bat to fight crime (Batman Begins), three mutants running a police department (Minority Report), or a man chosen to protect the universe using a ring (Green Lantern), the basic premises of most superhero and science-fiction movies can seem, well, silly. That is why Green Lantern director Martin Campbell challenged his production team to create a realistic, plausible (but fun) film. “Martin’s mandate was ‘There has to be a logic to the world that we create,’” explained Ozzy Inguanzo, researcher for Green Lantern. “We talked a lot about trying to bring the logic to the magic.”
Part of bringing that logic to the film’s magic involved several science consultations arranged by The Science & Entertainment Exchange (The Exchange). The film’s supervising art director François Audouy had previously worked with The Exchange on Watchmen, so when the production design team needed help with wormholes, alien bodies, and other-worldly bacteria, Audouy knew who to call, “We reached out to The Exchange initially to get some ideas about how wormholes work and how you could theoretically travel great distances to the center of the universe.”
That request led them to University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios. Kakalios, a huge comic book fan, was more than happy to help provide some science as inspiration for the design team. “They were interested in Hal Jordan’s initial journey to Oa, which is alleged to be in the center of the galaxy. So, the question was what would it look like from the inside of the wormhole?” explained Kakalios. “It’s not an easy question to answer because no one knows. No one has ever been inside of a wormhole.” But Kakalios did theorize one possible visual effect: Einstein lensing. “We talked about how you need to warp space and time in order to make this journey much faster than light would be able to, and consequentially you should expect to see Einstein lensing. It’s a phenomenon where the massive gravitational attraction of large bodies can distort space and time so that you’d see multiple images of stars or double images of certain galaxies. So presumably, if you were in a wormhole, you would see distortions along those lines.”
Kakalios’ ability to theorize a visual interpretation of a wormhole impressed Inguanzo, “He put himself in this science-fiction scenario and gave us what would happen in theory.” The concept of Einstein lensing also helped the film’s art department construct the wormhole’s appearance in the movie. “When you see the wormhole in the film, you’ll notice that it looks like space is expanding and contracting around the wormhole,” said Inguanzo.
Another scene influenced by a science consultation is the analysis of Abin Sur’s body by Hector Hammond. “[The production team] wanted to know what an alien autopsy would be like. Well, to begin with, nobody knows! How could you possibly know?” explained Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and science consultant for The Exchange. But that did not stop Shostak from contributing an imaginative, science-based idea of an alien autopsy. “[Shostak] said, ‘The first thing that would be very surprising to a scientist is if it had a biology that was symmetrical. It would be very unusual if you’re looking at an alien that evolved on another planet,’” remembered Inguanzo. The scene in the movie is a non-invasive analysis of Abin Sur’s body, but while the audience never sees the organs up close, the MRI scans in the scene’s design do show what the body’s internal organs look like. “The artist who did that took the body and designed the organs and the interior using the notes from Shostak as a starting point,” said Inguanzo.
Shostak also gave notes on how the body would be preserved and protected. “For example, you would want to cool down the body to keep it from decomposing, so we built a cryonic element into the bed. Those kinds of things were very important,” explained Inguanzo. Because of Shostak’s suggestions, Audouy points out, “The whole scene where Hector Hammond is analyzing Abin Sur became much more realistic.”
The design team was also careful to bring a sense of realism to the set design of the government lab. Normally, in science-fiction films, Shostak explained, “Everything would be slick with blue light and polished steel. It has to look pretty. It has to look technical. But if you visited a real government research lab, it’s not like that at all. There are cheap florescent lights, chairs and desks from 1955. Some of the equipment is new, most of it is old.” The challenge for the Green Lantern design team was to envision and build a government lab with both credibility and a cinematic quality. “The [laboratory] set is certainly cinematic. You want it to be dynamic in the photography. But it’s grounded in that it’s filled with layers of real-life science equipment. We had a giant MRI ring that was there to analyze the specimen. We had a giant 15-foot bubble that was used to create a seal around the work station. It’s not just there to fill up space, it has a purpose,” said Audouy. “We went to great pains to create an internal logic for the equipment pieces in the underground lab.”
Talks with Shostak also inspired a career change for one of the main characters, Hector Hammond. “[Shostak] said Hector could be someone who studied extremophiles,” explained Inguanzo. That small suggestion helped evolve Hammond’s character from a petty criminal (in the Green Lantern comic books) to a xenobiologist, a scientist who studies the biology of extra-terrestrial life, in the film. “Being a xenobiologist influenced his whole backstory,” said Audouy. The change also helped structure the plot of the film, as Inguanzo explained, “He was most divergent from the comic book. It was a collaborative effort to make this character more credible and relatable to the plot point of Abin Sur crashing on Earth, and the connection between Hector Hammond, Abin Sur, and Parallax.”
Parallax, the villain of the film, also required a science perspective. In Green Lantern, Parallax’s DNA spreads through alien bacteria, which hides in Abin Sur’s body, infecting Hammond. “We had two shots where Hammond is examining the open wound on Abin Sur’s body and he puts his hand in the wound and we see there is a substance in the wound,” said Inguanzo. “We wanted to know what it would look like. Would it look like a gooey substance? Would it be microscopic? Would you see it, would you not see it?” The Exchange connected the design team with Bonnie Bassler, a molecular biologist and professor at Princeton University. “The conversation with Bassler brought up the idea that the bacteria could be bioluminescent. There are marine bacteria that are bioluminescent because it’s in this abyss of darkness. She said it wouldn’t be unusual to see bioluminescence in the dark reaches of space where there is no light,” explained Inguanzo. “If you watch the movie, you’ll notice the yellow substance does have a bioluminescent quality to it.”
Bioluminescent bacteria or Einstein lensing in a wormhole are small details in Green Lantern but as Audouy pointed out, “In our positions, we love details. That’s what production designers do. We provide all these little details that hopefully collectively really make a difference in the movie.” And when you are trying to bring logic to a superhero movie, those small details can make or break the film’s credibility. “The audience wants to believe, they want to be on the journey with you, and be immersed in the story for 120 minutes without questioning anything,” said Audouy.
It also helps to have scientists on hand who are willing to go along for the imaginative ride. “One of the most pleasurable things about the whole experience was that everyone we spoke to [Bassler, Shostak, Kakalios], they understood the nature of filmmaking and storytelling. Their suggestions always came from a point of a love for science fiction. All of their advice and all of their suggestions came from a place of understanding storytelling,” said Inguanzo. Audouy agreed, “I love chatting with scientists because it opens up your mind to imagine things in a way you wouldn’t have thought of before. It’s very empowering to a designer.” And if there is one thing we can all agree on, it is that it takes a lot of imagination to turn a man wearing a green suit, courtesy of a ring, into a supernatural, summer blockbuster.