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Hulk Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

ImageThat review and this were written by the same person. The review of the film stands, though enough time has elapsed that it’s safe to specify what was disappointing; doing so in 2003 would have been too many spoilers. Clearly, Ang Lee and his writers wanted to introduce mature elements to the comic book idea of a man who turns into a invulnerable, very powerful green giant. The route they took, however, wasn’t all it could have been. Introducing Bruce Banner’s father, at least as presented here, wasn’t wise; though Nick Nolte (and Paul Kersey in the early scenes) are both very good as David Banner, the connections between him and his research and his adult son and HIS research seem forced and contrived. Making the climax a battle between Banner in Hulk form and his father who has, improbably, become a well-known Marvel super-villain, the Absorbing Man (though that term isn’t used), created chaos and confusion. It’s nearly impossible to tell exactly what is happening during the battle, why the lake in and around which it’s being fought (at one point, the lake freezes solid, trapping the Hulk), or even what the issues are. The very last scene, set a year later, is satisfying, but seems tacked on. It seems likely earlier cuts of the film didn’t have this ending.

The film was the most expensive ever made at Universal, and was not a smash hit, though overall it was successful. Successful enough, in fact, to generate a sequel—though Universal is trying hard to reduce or even eliminate connections with Ang Lee’s “Hulk.” Edward Norton rather than Eric Bana is playing Bruce Banner, French action specialist Louis Leterrier (the “Transporter” movies) is directing, and the plot is evidently a continuation of the TV series, “The Incredible Hulk”—and that’s the title of the second movie, too. But in years to come, when the fanboy anti-Ang Lee’s “Hulk” dies down, it’s likely that the positive values of his film will eventually take precedence over the negative. The problem is that it’s the last quarter or so of the movie that falls apart—and that’s what you remember, since it’s the last part you saw. But the rest is very good; it’s well worth watching the film again, especially in this excellent Hi-Def DVD. “Hulk” is one of the few movies that looks like a demonstration of high definition video. Lee emphasized textures throughout; there are many scenes linking Banner (and the Hulk) to the natural landscape: many closeups of lichen-bearing rock, gnarled tree roots and the grain of dried wood, skins of lizards, desert landscapes seen in closeup and long shot. All of these elements are visually intriguing, occasionally magnificent, and Ang Lee’s creativity and eye for unusual beauty enrich the film throughout. There are many scenes of microscopic activity—cells, bacteria, fine-pointed needles, etc., and these too add to the visual complexity of “Hulk.”

Furthermore, the creative editing of Tim Squyres, under Lee’s direction, leaps to life on the high-definition screen. Initially, Lee thought of using multiple-frame images in emulation of the pages of comic books, but, though there is some of that, veered away from it as the film was edited. Not only are there multiple panels, but they often move about the screen; there are unusual wipes (one sequence looks like the rotating squares of a Rubik’s Cube), images slide across or overlap one another; they’re actually choreographed. But this isn’t mere flamboyance; the various images interact and comment on one another, as do the several matching cuts (from a circular design to an eye, for example). “Hulk” is one of the most visually inventive films to be released by Hollywood in the last 20 years.

Ang Lee threw himself into the film, literally. Motion capture was used to “drive” the CGI Hulk; that is, an actor in a suit with markers at key spots was digitally filmed; this was used to create the motions of the Hulk. But Lee was dissatisfied with his ability to explain to the performer just what he wanted—so he donned the motion capture rig himself. Some footage of his deeply dedicated, intense motion capture acting is included in the various featurettes on the disc. It’s more than a little strange to watch Lee, in a black, form-fitting suit equipped with ping-pong-like balls attached, batter a balsa-wood tank in the middle of a brightly-lit stage—and to realize that yes, that IS how the Hulk moved in that scene.

His commentary track is mostly very good, because Lee is an extremely intelligent man who can explain his motives and intentions very clearly, even though English does not seem to be his first language. He talks about how he approached this comic book material, and it becomes clear that, despite the clear virtues of the finished film, he may not have been the best choice to direct a popcorn movie like this. He admits to trying for a certain “cheesy” B-movie ambience, particularly in the sound and some of the visuals, which other directors would have allowed to grow out of the material rather than be imposed on it, as Lee did. But his dedication to the film, his reliance on the intelligence of the audience, and his moviemaking skill are also evident.

There were many loud complaints about the special effects, directed by Dennis Muren for ILM, but looking at the film now makes those complaints seem misplaced and somewhat petty. The Hulk is very well realized; his flea-like leaping across the desert comes directly from the comic books. The one element that does now seem a mistake is the particular shade of green used for the Hulk; perhaps it would have been wiser for the color to have been more like that of human skin, with a green overlay. In any event, it can’t be denied that people DID complain about the effects. The Hulk’s skin varies, not in color, but in general appearance; it looks best in the daytime desert scenes, worst in interiors, when it takes on a waxy appearance.

In addition to Lee’s commentary track, the extras include “Inside the Rage.” With this engage, as you watch the film a green atomic symbol occasionally appears at the lower right. Pressing the “enter” on your remote takes you to behind-the-scenes footage, usually of how the amazing live-action effects were accomplished. In virtually all effects scenes, the Hulk and only the Hulk is CGI; explosions, walls being smashed, helicopters crashing to the Earth—all these were done live action, usually life-size. When Banner first “Hulks out,” he smashes his way through a hospital; it’s eerie watching the behind the scenes footage—the walls and doors fly into flinders with no one near them. It’s like the Monster from the Id from “Forbidden Planet” is making a guest (non)appearance. These “Inside the Rage” featurettes include several scenes of Lee in the motion capture suit.

There’s a selection of deleted scenes, and as usual, it’s fairly clear why they were deleted. There are a couple of telephone conversations, a scene of Banner in high school, and a couple of phone calls. The one scene that perhaps should have been retained is of Betty Ross and Bruce Banner explaining their “nanomeds” to potential investors. As released, there’s no explanation for the term, though it’s likely most viewers won’t notice it in the first place.

“Evolution of the Hulk” is a history of the character, beginning with a short history of Marvel Comics. Among the talking heads are Stan Lee, the chief architect of Marvel Comics and one of the creators of The Hulk (the other was artist Jack Kirby), producers Avi Arad and Gale Ann Hurd, co-screenwriter James Schamus and science advisor John Underkoffler. There are also scenes from the animated “Marvel Super Heroes” series, and “The Incredible Hulk.” Long-time Marvel readers may choke on their popcorn when Stan Lee muses “As careful as I am with every scientific fact….” inasmuch as scientific fact was not exactly of paramount performance at Marvel.

“The Incredible Ang Lee” is about Lee as a director, with contributions by Schamus, Jennifer Connelly, Eric Bana, Hurd and others. It’s moderately interesting, but doesn’t spend much time on Lee’s pre-“Hulk” films (like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”).

“The Dog Fight Scene” dissects the battle between the Hulk and the three vicious dogs David Banner has somehow Hulked-out. They’re all dog colored, though when they’re smashed against a sequoia, or something else solid, they do explode in clouds of green. Dennis Muren talks about the dog-fight scene, as do producer Larry Franco, and other effects technicians, including Seth Rosenthal and Glen McIntosh. The most amusing element here is the behind-the-scenes shots of a dog dressed up in a motion-capture suit. It’s shown roughhousing with its trainer Anthony Shafer, evidently in a vicious attack—but its stubby tail is constantly wagging. This is a dog enjoying himself.

“The Making of “Hulk’” is a standard making-of feature, with interviews with many behind-the-scenes personnel and a few of the actors. It’s subdivided into sections devoted to “Cast & Crew,” “Stunts and Physical Effects’” (featuring the inventive Michael Lantieri and stunt coordinator Charlie Croughuell), ILM (with Muren again, as well as Wilson Tang and others, and finally a section on “Music,” emphasizing composer Danny Elfman.

“The Unique Style of Editing ‘Hulk’” is another featurette and, because the editing style is indeed unique, even fascinating, this section is particularly impressive, particularly because editor Tim Squyres is the most prominent of the interview subjects.

“My Scenes” is a feature new to me: this allows you to watch the movie again, pressing your remote’s “B” button to save your favorite scenes. However, it’s unclear why this is an advantage over using the standard “scene selection” feature.

“Hulk” is probably better than you may remember, or perhaps you avoided the film because of negative reactions from friends. Although the last extended section of the film—from roughly where Banner collapses into Betty’s arms after arriving in San Francisco to “one year later”—is weak, confusing and chaotic, the film until that point is remarkably interesting, one of the most intelligent super-hero movies yet released. It may be that “intelligence” of this order isn’t a comfortable fit with superhero movies, but Universal is still to be commended for taking this expensive chance with Ang Lee.

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