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Hulk (2003) Print E-mail
Friday, 20 June 2003
As has gradually become clear, there's more than one way to skin the comic book cat, more than one approach in adapting that colorful, sensationalistic material, the kind of thing that gets under your skin and, for many of us, stays there your whole life through. There's the approach of the first Christopher Reeve "Superman," to stay faithful to the superhero movie but to have fun with the villains, and to set it in a colorful but largely realistic world. In Tim Burton's "Batman," the world itself was bizarre and distorted, the kind of place that could generate not just a hero like Batman, but a villain as weird as The Joker. "X-Men" adapted the comics to fit a modern-day action movie style, and introduced interesting adult concerns. "Spider-Man" basically IS a big comic book, done absolutely straight and set mostly in the real world.

And then there's "Hulk." Like the others, it takes an adult approach to child-like (but not childish) material, and gives us a Hulk even more amazing than the comics could. But it also seriously grapples with family relationships in the context of a movie whose central feature is a huge green menace.

Director Ang Lee at first seemed to be a very peculiar choice as director. It's true that he's rarely repeated himself, and has tackled a variety of genres. He began with a trio of films set among the Taiwanese community, culminating with "Eat Drink Man Woman." But his next film was a radical departure: a straightforward and successful adaptation of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility. "The Ice Storm" followed, a somewhat less successful modern-day drama. After that came "Ride With the Devil," a vigorous Civil War Western.

He's best known for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a phenomenally successful tribute to (and entry in) the Hong Kong period action film, full of mystic martial arts. I imagine much of the questions at Ang Lee interviews are the more verbose equivalent of a puzzled "Huh?"

Clearly, "Hulk" is a big summer popcorn movie, and an effective, often amazing one at that. The most expensive movie ever produced by Universal pictures, it's intended to be a huge hit, and probably will be -- it deserves that kind of response. But Lee wanted it to be more, as well, and it is. At the end, it's also rather less than what it could have been, introducing elements that probably should have been avoided. However, the very last scenes wrench it back onto a better path.

In "Hulk" -- the title is bare and stark without a "The" -- we are swiftly introduced to Dr. David Banner (Paul Kersey), who lives near a military base with his wife (Cara Buono). He's researching regeneration, working with jellyfish, starfish and the like, and is eager to move on to human testing. When he's turned down by the commanding officer, Ross (Todd Tesen), he secretly experiments on himself -- and then fathers a son, who proves to have inherited some of the genetic alterations. Just what this means is not explained at this point, as this early sequence ends in a blur of action and a green explosion.
Years later, the baby, Bruce (Eric Bana), as an adult has also become a researcher, a quiet nerdly type who represses almost all his emotions. He's recently been reluctantly dropped as a romantic interest by fellow researcher Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). She admits she seems to have "an obsession for emotionally distant men." But they plug ahead on their research, which unknown to Bruce is along the same line as his father's. He believes his parents to both be dead, and grew up adopted by another family.

Coldly ambitious Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) shows up; he was a rejected suitor for Betty -- who clearly dislikes him -- and is working for Ross (now Sam Elliott), who's become a general. There's a great gulf between Betty and her father, perhaps an unbridgeable one. He's a calculating user, almost incapable of contacting his daughter -- whom he loves -- without an ulterior motive, and this has worn her down.

Betty and Bruce have been working on trying to stimulate tissue regeneration by genetically-altering drugs and gamma ray bombardment. Then there's a disaster in the lab; in saving their assistant, Bruce himself is caught in a fierce gamma ray burst. Meanwhile, a seedy-looking janitor is keeping an unusually close watch on them. One night, he turns up in Bruce's recovery room and reveals that he (Nick Nolte) is actually Bruce's father, whom Ross had had locked up for thirty years. He's even more interested in the research than he was, and intensely curious about possible changes in Bruce -- who's unaware his father used him as an experimental subject -- from the gamma radiation.

And changes there are. Disturbed by a serious of minor events, Bruce's control over his emotions gives way, and he becomes enraged -- and then transforms into a 12-foot, immensely strong green hulk. Or Hulk. He smashes up the lab, and bounds away.

This begins a series of increasingly astonishing transformations, or Hulkouts as they were called on the TV series "The Incredible Hulk." (Lou Ferrigno, that show's Hulk, has a cameo here with a very gabby Stan Lee.) Talbot visits the confused, frightened Banner, who changed back when he calmed down, and attacks him -- leading to another amazing Hulkout that demolishes a house, and then some. There's a wild battle between Hulk and some appropriate menaces here, including a few beautiful shots in the northern California forests.

The genie is out of the bottle, and "Thunderbolt" Ross is determined to get it back in again. Banner is confined in a vast underground installation in the desert. Ross just wants to keep him sedated the rest of his life, unknown to Betty, but Talbot, who works for a big company, definitely has other ideas.

Soon, the Hulk is abroad in the daylight, in one of the greatest sustained action sequences I have ever seen. He leaps about the desert, tossing tanks a mile, smashing others, SPITTING a warhead at a helicopter, and in general wreaking impatient havoc.

As is now well known, these scenes are accomplished with a computer-graphics animated Hulk. These effects were handled by Industrial Light and Magic, and were under the direction of Dennis Muren, a master of this sort of thing: it was Muren who had the brilliant idea of doing the “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs in CG. Last winter, "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" featured Gollum, the most astonishingly believable CGI character ever. The Hulk is almost in that league. The character is so well done that extreme closeups depicting nuances of emotion are not only possible, but frequently used. There are also impressive aerial shots of a tiny Hulk, bounding his way across the southwestern desert, evidently determined to get to the only thing he knows can calm him down, Betty Ross, who's back in Berkeley.

This whole sequence is so breathtaking, funny and exciting that it's nearly impossible for the remainder of the film to approach this feverish, exhilarating high -- and it doesn't. Instead, it takes a new direction, one that's unrewarding and intrusive -- and worst of all, unnecessary. The film is so good overall that it deserves the four-star rating above, but the big action scene toward the end is disappointing, and weakens the film. Still, with this proviso, it's very much worth seeing.

All this, however, is really only half of "Hulk." The screenplay by John Turman, Michael France and James Schamus (the latter Lee's regular co-writer) confronts and deals well with the question of generational conflict. Bruce is at odds with his father, as Betty is with hers. Both the older men are intransigent and hard-nosed, and one of them is insane. Their children are the victims of their refusal to accept parental responsibility, and the Hulk himself is directly linked to David's criminal acts.

When, with the great Jack Kirby, Stan Lee created The Hulk way back when, he had a simple idea: a combination of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein's Monster, with a scientist turning into a huge, muscular creature with ideas of its own. (The Hulk was originally articulate and gray, but soon became green and inarticulate -- "Hulk smash puny humans" was about the limit of his discourse.) But Ang Lee and his writers, while presenting the same idea, go a step beyond.

One of the most interesting characteristics of some of the superhero movies is when the writers have ideas that expand beyond those in the comic books. (Which isn't easy; comic books have been around long enough, and created by enough talented people, that thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of ideas have been created.) In "Batman," it was the shot when the heroine looked across a bedroom at night, and saw Bruce Wayne hanging by his knees, asleep. It was funny and yet appropriate. In "X-Men," it was in the exchange between Rogue and Wolverine: she asks him if it hurts when his blades leap out between his knuckles. "Every time," he sourly replies.

And in "Hulk," it's what Banner says after his second full-bore Hulkout. Resting with Betty in her weekend cabin in the forest, he tells her, "When it happens, when it comes over me, when I totally lose control, I like it." This is entirely fitting: he's spent almost every day since childhood fighting his terrible temper, and his more gentle emotions as well. All responsibility has been lifted when he becomes the Hulk; Banner is just along for the thrilling ride.

Another bright idea Ang Lee brings to superhero movies is a robust embrace of comics-style panels: the movie is full of multiple screens, some of which slide from one side to another, all of which are imaginative and intelligently used. The Hulk scenes are so eye-popping that it's possible this graphic idea may end up overlooked. Lee also focuses frequently on beautifully veined dry wood, lizards, frogs, lichens and rocks; the idea that as bizarre as he is, the Hulk is a part of the natural order of things, a big green part. In one night scene, he seems almost to blend with the twisted branches of a dead tree.

There are also occasional dream sequences for several of the characters, including Betty, Banner and, separately, the Hulk himself. The movie has been made with extraordinary care and thought; the first glimpse we get of the Hulk is through a slowly opening door resembling one that's very important in Banner's childhood memories. After Hulking out, Banner eats a lot, but this is not emphasized. In David Banner's cluttered lair, amidst scientific books, equipment and little else, there are a few drawings of women on the wall, what he's given up. Ross's desert lair is built beneath the town we saw at the beginning, and with amusing appropriateness, the entrance is beneath an abandoned movie theater. When the Hulk gets really mad, he gets even larger; the character embodies, as Banner says, "a dream of rage and power and freedom."

The story is not overwhelmed by the effects, nor is the acting. Eric Bana is an Australian actor who appeared in "Black Hawk Down;" he's very effective here, bringing out Banner's full range of personality. (And The Hulk has been designed to resemble Bana, as well as the four-year-old who plays the young Bruce.) Jennifer Connelly brings a great deal of texture to the role of Betty. On the other hand, though they're convincing, both Nick Nolte and Sam Elliott play one-note characters.

The cinematography by Frederick Elmes is colorful and rich, with a wide palate -- forests, cities, small towns, towering desert rocks -- to play with. The score by Danny Elfman is especially good, and ties in very well with the film itself, which is intricately edited by Tim Squyres. Michael Lantieri was in charge of the mechanical effects, and they're doozies -- the Hulk is CGI, but all the tanks, rolling cars, smashed laboratories and the like, were done real time, full scale.

"Hulk" is probably more impressive overall for what it tries to do than what it succeeds at, but the fact that it does reach for the sun is more important than that it reaches only the moon.

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