Our review of Hulk (Blu-Ray), published September 24th, 2008, is also available.
Rage. Power. Freedom.
For this critic, there were only three comic book heroes who he could truly identify with. The notion of collecting and coordinating vast quantities of "funny books" never crossed his mind, nor did he want to indulge in some of the later, more "mature" titles given the "graphic novel" treatment. From about 8 to 15, he read what he wanted, usually picking them off a rack at the local drugstore and eventually tossing them aside, never considering their future value. Among the various horror and all-out kiddie crap tomes he thumbed through, said triad of pen and ink titans came to the fore as welcomed, bi-monthly friends. Plastic Man, probably more than any other colorful crime fighter, punned and funned his way into this critic's cold, lonely heart. Howard the Duck replaced Plas in the humor and self-hatred department. But it was Thor, the mighty God of Thunder in the form of Dr. Donald Blake, that really captured his vivid imagination. There was just something about this Norse deity with his hammer Mjolnir at his side that sent self-penned storylines off into the stratosphere. So it was with a little apprehension that yours truly approached Hollywood's chronic comic movie output, and when it was announced that technology had finally allowed that jade behemoth to make the jump to the big screen, he was not impressed. The Hulk was never a favorite. Never in comic form. Never in animated cartoon form. Never in the form of a hyper-pumped up Lou Ferrigno, snarling like the Jolly Green Giant with 'roid rage. To him, The Hulk was just an oversized stooge, a superhero because of size only. But interestingly, Ang Lee's Hulk had a different effect on him. While far from perfect, Lee lets the audience inside a superhero for the first time and the results are very interesting indeed. And for the first time, this critic was fascinated.
Facts of the Case
David Banner, a scientist working for the Government during the mid-1960s, stumbles upon a serum that supposedly alters a person's genetic make-up for the better. Without authorization, he tries the formula on himself. Unfortunately, his wife becomes pregnant and the new, unstable genetic material is passed down to his young son Bruce. As he grows, Bruce is a weak, withdrawn child, one the other kids pick on. A family tragedy leaves the adolescent facing the prospect of growing up alone.
Years later, this same Bruce Banner is also involved in genetic engineering. A freak accident exposes him to massive gamma radiation, but Bruce is unharmed. One day, a visit from someone claiming to be his father triggers a biological reaction that turns the nerdy scientist into a 30-foot giant green muscleman with untold powers and abilities. Naturally, this gets the government's attention. They want to know his/its capabilities. They send a man named Talbot to investigate, but when he fails, General Ross takes over.
Ross is the father of Betty Ross, ex-flame and current co-worker of Banner's. When she discovers what is happening to him, she confronts the man claiming to be Bruce's father and finds out the truth. He is Bruce's dad, David, back to figure out the secret to his son's new powers. Angry, David sends a pack of genetically monstrous dogs after Betty, but Bruce as the super being stops them. Soon the Army is on Bruce's tail and he is taken into custody. But with his father's determination, Betty's resolve, and his alter ego's own unlimited power, it's not long before Bruce, the Hulk, is free, seeking revenge for all the pent up, unexplained rage he has.
This review must begin with a warning: you will either "get" what Ang Lee has done to the Hulk or you will not. Now, this is not a "love it or hate" it kind of quandary. In reality, it's much more of a "yes" or "no" proposition. If you are used to the Raimi ideal of comic book moviemaking or think that Bryan Singer has got the X down to a simple science, then give up now, avoid this movie at all costs, and chalk up the big green monster man to yet another misguided attempt by Hollywood to bring the graphic novel to life. But if it clicks for you, if you stick with it, buy into the premise and the way director Lee presents it, Hulk will stay with you for days after you've watched it. It will be the first superhero action film that actually says something profound about parental relationships, the untapped power of emotion, and the struggle for self-control. The nature of the Hulk has always been described as the out of control id of Bruce Banner's mild-mannered scientist nerd. The original origins for the character were steeped in repressed memories and parental abuse. Lee magnifies this concept, wanting to fully explore all aspects of it, to make the beast not only the representation of the human mind, but also the true physical interpretation of it.
Now, how successful Lee has accomplished this will be the answer to the pro or con dilemma. Most fans of fast action cartoon chaos voted with decided thumbs down, claiming that Lee missed his chance to make the monster of all cartoon films. They lamented how he instead focused all fun into a dry, dreary drama revolving around Bruce Banner's childhood and the genetic experimentation that physically mutated him and the emotional trauma that mentally manipulated him. Others argued that Betty Ross was reduced to a walking, wasted cipher (and indeed, if there is an overall weak link in Lee's Hulk, it's Jennifer Connelly's zombified decision to play every scene as if she is grieving over some unknown relative we've never met) and her father, General Ross, as an outrageously over the top inhuman scoundrel who seems molded out of pure military issue anger. And still there were those who weep for that forgotten foe in the standard comic film canon, the arch villain, a Joker/Magneto/Green Goblin of equal energy and emergence. But in Lee's marvel universe, there isn't one. All the bad guy vibe lands on the shoulders of Bruce's father, which means that we must deal with Banner the son/man first and Banner the CGI beast secondary. And for most fans of carefree eye candy blockbusters, individualized character studies and special effects fantasy just do not mix, nor should anyone try.
It's the more human issues in Hulk (interesting how Lee chose to skip both the "Incredible" tag and the impersonal pronoun as well) that Lee wants to focus on, and if the idea of massive back story and flashbacks o'plenty make your stomach seize, or if you really wish the actors would just shut up and fight/blow something up, Hulk will not be a pleasant ride for you. Lee is striving for something deeper here, something more philosophical and universal. He wants to tap into that time-tested relationship between parent and child and work its intense Freudian fire into an inferno of pent-up rage. Hulk is meant to be a release of that rage, to show how failures on the part of our guardians result in destructive behavior. This is not some subtle, cinematically created symbolism. This was the basis for another Lee's—Stan Lee—desire to create the original character. The genius of the Hulk as an entity is that he is indeed us, fueled at the genetic level by trauma and terror and overblown into a destructive force that must be reckoned with. It's intriguing to note how there is not a real revelatory arc to the Hulk's development. Unlike Spider-man, who slowly worked his way through his powers to the point of proficiency, or the men of X who need educating on their special gifts, the Hulk just "becomes." At one moment, Bruce Banner is a normal human being. The next he is an outraged giant with an even larger, deadlier chip on his behemoth shoulders.
The transformation of the psychological into the physiological is at the heart of Hulk as a character and Hulk as a movie. The entire film is actually about our biological and emotional heritage, about how our bodily chemistry and interpersonal lineage, become the reason for who we are. Unlike the comic book version, this Hulk was a fiend just waiting to be forged. Daddy Banner's experiments and the unfortunate ramifications, both biologically and emotionally to his young son, are just a more modern, less meat-fisted way of handling the humongous' foundation. In Stan Lee's comic book world, Bruce is escaping an abusive alcoholic, murderous father. In Ang Lee's world, David Banner is DNA destiny, the reason why Bruce is who he is at the molecular as well as the persona level. This one-two punch makes the movie Hulk a far more complex, preordained brute. The notion of not being able to control one's own providence is a fear that most offspring have, and Hulk blows it up into a big green overtly violent twisted mass of muscle without the ability to properly control itself; again, another part of the panic of growing up. True, we all aren't worried about growing thirty feet in every direction and raging without rhyme or reason, but we do concern ourselves with the notion that our past controls our present and future and we are unable to keep it from happening. This is, perhaps, why Hulk does not resonate with the standard blockbuster audience: the teenage boy. As the unbearable kings of the planet, they have yet to figure out how their past and their father figure (or lack thereof) has influenced their life. To them, Hulk should be about smashing and bashing. He should not be a reflection of a youth unfulfilled or a life filled with empty pain.
So Hulk is really the first adult action film, a movie that uses a unique cinematic style and obvious operatic tendencies to invoke more than tell its tale. Indeed, there is not a lot of mood swinging going on in this film. Lee gives us emotional archetypes versus real three-dimensional people. Betty is the stunted child in constant sorrow over her life. Her father, General Ross, is the unforgiving and unforgiven force, a person programmed by duty. Bruce is the opposite of Betty but cast from the same mold. He suppresses everything, hoping that the internal squeaks and pops that restraint causes will go away quickly. As the ultimate failed father, David Banner exemplifies the personification of heredity, of the passing down of not only mental and physical but even genetic imprints from father to child. When he chooses to experiment on himself, he dooms his child to live with its after effects. Bruce is immortality's crack baby, a child born altered thanks to his father's obsessions, the ticking hereditary time bomb just waiting for a blast of gamma radiation to speed up the process Daddy started in him thirty-odd years before. Bruce's transformation into the Hulk isn't an accident as much as a birthright. And the fact that no evil arch enemy finally confronts the big green geek but instead, Father shows up with a few atomic traits all his own, means that Oedipus gets a big jade boot in the butt so as to make room for the ultimate squabble between electro-magnetic pop and oversized emerald man mountain for the honor of a long dead mother.
Thankfully, this deep-seeded child rearing rhetoric is couched in a wonderfully visual and abstractly arresting set of moviemaking ideals. There are those who do and will find Ang Lee's choices suspect and/or even irritating. He uses more split screen sequences than Brian De Palma has ever fantasized over and loves to overlap shots to give us multiple "every conceivable angle" opportunities. Perhaps on the big screen this was an undeniably distracting tactic. To take a billboard-sized cineplex widescreen and micromanage it down to a few isolated blocks of information appears to defeat the purpose of the big screen completely, but on the small screen, this stylistic choice works wonderfully. It helps to propel the narrative over the deeply bruised sequences of psyche in somersault and shows us that someone can literally take the structure of a comic book, apply it to the movies, and make it work. Yes, it is obvious at first, but near the end, you welcome its warped compositional chaos to infuse a little unforeseen life into the proceedings. Hulk is indeed a lot like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining in that it is a horror movie (or in this case, a monster movie) turned into grand operatic opus by a rigid structural process and detachment from the genre's usual conventions. Though it doesn't work all the time, it does make for a far more fascinating film than some flash and fade away piece of instant gratification.
The casting also doesn't help matters much. Eric Bana could be this year's model and one of all those young dudes (and from his list of credits he seems quite the Aussie superstar), but as a leading man he is all glower and no real power. His Banner seems so shell shocked that his transformation into the Hulk comes as a welcome injection of vigor into his character. Sam Elliot's General Ross would give R. Lee Ermey a run for his bombastic money, and Josh Lucas as slimy takeover sleaze Talbot is all gritting teeth and telltale smarm. But it's Nick Nolte as the seemingly homeless harbinger of the Banner biological mystery that causes the most concern. Nolte is really "acting" here, permeating his lines with the kind of life that most of the cast shuns like strained peas. His Daddy David Banner is an unpredictable, unhinged presence and whenever he's around, the best you can say is that the results will be unpredictable. It's not that he's miscast, or wrong for the film, but his thespian power transcends the material, making the meager work of others around him stand out even more. If a different cast had been assembled, one matching Nolte's unglued panache, then many of the moments that seem mopey to fans would perhaps spark with life. As it is, we are left with a couple of crazy old timers (Elliot and Nolte) out witting and out spitting the main members of the movie's menagerie. And that's not including the oversized rage-aholic.
As a CGI creation, the Hulk himself seems one shadow and character crafting computer map pass from being the most amazing digital creation ever. It appears that, after the success of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the computer-generated imagists at ILM just can't quite figure out how to make something not look fake. While this may seem like an oxymoron, the completely green, oversized giant never once looks natural or "human" enough. He is over-detailed, all carefully placed ripples and dirt. We never get the full effect of the Hulk being flawed or part of his environment. Instead, we can see the environment conforming to him, with tanks and planes and houses becoming more "cartoon" like to fit in to what the Hulk has in mind. No place is this more abundantly clear than in the much-discussed Hulk Dogs sequence. While overall it's a very well done action scene (what else would you expect from the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?), the oversized mutts look Scooby-Doo (2002) awful. They don't appear as genetically altered hounds; they're animated cartoon monsters in puppy suits that look phony from the minute the binary spit flies from their flapping jowls. Indeed, the state of the art with today's CGI is in flux. At certain times, the Hulk is second only to Lord of the Rings' Gollum in believable computerized characterization. Other times, he and his hard drive cohorts look just like flat animation, no better than having some painted green body builder optically processed into a miniature set or a stop motion manster on the one frame per second move. Indeed, what many computer artists forget is that they are supposed to be rendering the unreal real, not crafting perfectly painted practicality. For all his accurate body movement and incredible facial gesturing, more times that not the Hulk just looks like a well-painted drawing.
It's the depth of symbolism and the sheer cinematic artistry of Ang Lee that keeps Hulk afloat. Yes, the movie is too long (see Rebuttal Witness) and the effects are not always special, but what this Lee does is prove the Stan Lee thesis of Marvel's best comic creations. It was the elder Lee's belief that the best entertainment came out of the personalities and storylines, not fancy ink sketches. In 2003, Hollywood definitely lives by the bright lights, pretty colors theory of superhero movies. Details just get in the way of the next attractive explosion or the fast food tie-in moment. Hulk is a good movie burdened by expectations it could never meet and limitations that couldn't be overcome. It is an effective denouncement of the parent/child relationship, of the basic progeny's fear that we will grow up under the direct influence of our parents, almost to the point of pinpoint replication. Bruce Banner's problem is that, if he indeed matures exactly like his father, there is truly no hope for mankind. In order to survive, he will have to come to terms with what he is, and how he can manage it—if ever. Actually, this critic predicts that ten years from now, Hulk will be viewed as way ahead of its time in grappling with subjects that something like X-Men only skims over or Spider-Man avoids altogether. With a push to give every bi-monthly name a cinematic incarnation of its own (and even the revisiting of some previous franchise presentations), Hulk is destined to get lost. But wipe the blockbuster mentality from your perception and view this film again. Perhaps you'll see an excellent exploration of human nature wrapped inside a thick green shell.
Universal treats Hulk to a very nice, overly superfluous special edition DVD that is large on content but short on real insight. Unless it features Ang Lee, most of the featurettes and behind the scenes media material are very puff fluffy. Most of Disc Two is made up of interviews and explanations that the guys from ILM seem to have down by rote. Nothing interesting is achieved by watching them hit a keyboard stroke and seeing Hulk's eyebrows arch over and over again. And their rationale for why some of the CGI looks less than realistic is a case of baffling them with BS when the truth is much simpler. Some of the other extra content is mysterious. Do we really need ads for Sunny Delight pseudo juice drink or some X-box game? And how many different ways can we explore the Hulk's homoerotic musculature? Someone at Universal has male body issues, bad. The deleted scenes are mostly expositional and technical retreads that are not needed. About the only unique feature is a short that traces the Hulk from printed page to all his small screen incarnations. It's a hoot to see that old cartoon footage again, and Stan Lee is always good for a self-serving anecdote or two.
But the best stuff on Disc Two is Ang Lee himself, wearing the motion capture suit to provide computer programmers with the Hulk performances he wants. Lee's dedication, desire, and (most importantly) his pantomime skills really reflect the movements we see in the film. If it wasn't true enough from the look and feel of Hulk, viewing this eye-opening exposé of Lee's hands-on approach to character creation means that this movie is truly and exclusively his. Most everything else, from the galleries and cast profiles to the artistic recreations of a key Hulk scene (done by four very talented visual sketchers), are interesting, but none capture the "give it all" drive that Lee had for this film. You also feel this spirit in Lee's commentary track. Be warned—Lee is very dry, a little quaint, and leaves large gaps between scenes and speeches. He has a tendency to drop a line or two and then let the delicacy linger as the sequence plays out, but other times he just lets the movie roll and he sits back to enjoy. Some of his comments are crucial to understanding this film (he wanted Hulk to be a mixture of traditional horror movie and opera), and he apologizes for straying from the comic's origins, but mostly, Lee feels Hulk does the best job, in his opinion and experience, of bringing a complete comic book to the big screen. He explains his techniques, wallows in his excesses, and marvels at the work the actors and technicians did for the film. But he never once lets us forget that this is his movie and that he is very proud of it.
As for the transfer and aural avenues, we aren't far from reference quality on both sides. This is one fine looking and sounding DVD. Universal's print of the film is clean and crisp, with strong colors and interesting ambiance. There are times when Lee's picture-in-picture overlapping split screen techniques threaten to throw the image off balance, but overall, it looks great (especially the desert scenes both in flashback and in the climatic battle). Sonically, Hulk has a few issues. For one, the effects work and "Hulkisms" are way too loud. For a film with many scenes of quiet conversation and exposition, this is disorienting and speaker threatening. The 5.1 does offer some nice channel challenges, especially in the action and fight sequences, but be prepared to have the walls rumble one minute and you straining to hear what people say the next.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At nearly two hours and ten minutes, this movie is just too long. Lee's love affair with the scientific aspects of David/Bruce Banner's life is showcased in scene after scene of ever decreasing technical interest until we just want to move on to the first transformation. But Lee also loves his action scenes. The Hulk vs. Hulk Dogs fight goes on a little too long and is cruel, even by monster standards. But it's the ending where the biggest example of pandering and padding occurs. When the Hulk faces his final foe and fates are decided, there is a closing shot of a body floating calmly in the water that would have been a hugely emotional capper to what has been a decent mix of drama with effects. But then, as if by studio committee mandate, we have to have a 12-minute coda that catches us up on Betty, General Ross, and the whereabouts of one Bruce Banner. The cheesy Amazon basin ending nearly wipes out everything subtle and strong that came before it. You half expect Ahhhh-nold to come walking out of the underbrush to spew one of his certified catchphrases manufactured for efficient schoolyard recital. Cutting off the horrible finale and trimming some of the excess science away would definitely make Hulk a more crowd-pleasing entry, as well as shoring up the dramatic aspects Lee fought so hard to preserve. It's just another example of how imperfect a still good film Hulk really is.
It's hard to hate Ang Lee for what he's done with Hulk. It's not every day that a major Hollywood studio hands over a huge budget and a potential franchise to a well-known independent film voice and simply lets him do what he wanted. One can easily imagine the Tinseltown cookie cutter version of this film, with a suitable archenemy and spectacular action sequences abounding. The Hulk himself would have some manner of simpleton dialogue to push him further into empathy territory, and Betty would have a wiseass best friend who would constantly rib the shy scientist about her green boyfriend's "size." But instead of triple entendres and endless endowment jokes, we get a serious psychological retelling of Frankenstein from the beast's point of view, a monster inherently related to his creator in every way. We also are furnished with an incredibly insightful look into the parent/child dynamic in all its hideous, hopeful forms. Hulk is less about its comic origins and more about adult ideas and storytelling. It was destined to fail not only because it failed to stoop to the lowest common denominator, but also because it failed to even begin to play by the rules of such. Like Plastic Man, the ducky Howard, and the mighty Viking of vengeance, this updated version of human angst personified was able to clutch this critic's interest. While not a perfect film, it is definitely an individual artistic statement and one that will be heralded as such in the future. Ang Lee's Hulk is the bastard child of Stan Lee's original vision. But it's actually the better for it.
Ang Lee and his version of Hulk are found not guilty and are free to go. ILM is charged with fraud in the inducement and in factum and are forced to work 80-hour weeks until they get all of the smooth bugs out of the human replication software. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Ang Lee
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