Why the Hulk Movie Was Partly Nifty-Keen

I have to admit, I went into the Hulk movie primarily concerned about the CGI. The trailers shown during the Super Bowl and in the weeks leading up to the film's release were giving me Star Wars flashbacks--specifically to The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, where the CGI simply did not integrate with the real world, throwing me out of the reality that Lucas & Co. were trying to convey. I never believed that Jar-Jar Binks, or any of the rest of the Gungams, or the battle droids or Yoda or the clone-masters existed in the same universe as the humans.

Plus, the one thing CGI isn't especially good at conveying is mass. Spider-Man and Daredevil are acrobats who move lightly and airily, so the insubstantial quality of CGI is a better fit for them--less so for the Hulk who is supposed to be huge and lumbering.

That fear turned out to be mostly unwarranted. The CGI used in the trailers was very obviously not the final iteration of same, and the Hulk that we saw on the big screen was much more detailed and much better integrated into the reality of the movie. And they compensated by having most of the shots very distant or very close up. The medium shots are either fast-moving or focusing on the damage being done by the character, which makes up for the insubstantial nature of the computer-generated character.

Best of all is the face, which looks like a mutated, twisted form of Eric Bana's own--different enough to be distinguishable, but similar enough so that it's recognizable (and believable when both Betty and Bruce's father realize who the monster is). It's also very expressive, though mostly called upon to be screaming, snarling, and such. However, that does not mean that The Hulk is an entirely successful film. It's on a perfect bell curve, in fact: in the middle, we've got a great movie. Unfortunately, it's bracketed by an interminable and wrongheaded opening and an unnecessary second climax.

Director Ang Lee wastes a great deal of time setting everything up, so much so that he has to shortchange the actual story he's trying to tell. Most of early going is information that Bruce himself has to receive later in the movie, either because he was never told or because he repressed the memory. Bad enough that the opening takes too long and is mind-numbingly dull, but then most of what it conveys is provided later on. In fact, it would have been far more effective if the viewer learned about Bruce's father and his childhood as the character did, allowing the viewer to go on the journey with the character, and making the character's emotional reactions (which were critical to whether or not he got all big, green, and destructively attitudinal) more compelling.

Once we finally get to our hero, Bruce Krenzler (his adopted name; he doesn't learn that he was born with the last name Banner until later in the film) we're already well into the movie's running time. Unfortunately, by then I was ready to gnaw my leg off at the knee. The movie gets there as fast as it can, which serves only to skimp on the characterization of the lead character. We're twice told that Bruce bottles up his emotions and never gets angry (once by his mother when he's a child, once by his colleague and ex-girlfriend Betty Ross, discussing their breakup), but we're never shown it.

The entire film is predicated on the Hulk being the expression of Bruce's repressed anger, the unleashing of the emotions he's bottled up all his life--but we haven't seen this. The opening portion of the film has spent so much time establishing Bruce's father David and how his own genetic experiments were passed on to his son and it doesn't bother to establish Bruce himself.

Once we get to the accident, where Bruce throws himself in front of a nasty burst of radiation to save the life of a young lab assistant (why this character is named Harper rather than the comics' Rick Jones is unclear, since Harper is the analogue to Rick), and later turns all big and green, the movie really kicks in. Lee proved with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that he can do the stylized action of a Hong Kong martial-arts movie, and with The Hulk, he proves he can do the balls-to-the-wall action that is favored in this country. It is a testament to his skill that he can make the Hulk's battle against three mutated dogs actually work as a suspenseful action sequence, and the theoretically climactic battle against the army that goes from the desert to Lombard Street in San Francisco is a masterpiece.

Speaking of mutated dogs, it is also a testament that he can get Sam Elliott to say, "He saved your life from a mutated French poodle, and for that I'm grateful" with a straight face. In general, the casting is excellent. Bana could actually afford to be less affable as Bruce, as playing him more stiff might have made the weaknesses of the scripting and/or editorial decisions of the opening less glaring, but he's still quite fine. Elliott as General Ross and Jennifer Connelly as Betty are both perfectly cast and inhabit their roles beautifully.

Nick Nolte is hit-and-miss as David Banner, sometimes a little too over-the-top, but still well played. Unfortunately, his character gets too much screentime. Besides the endless opening, was it necessary to turn him into the Absorbing Man, thus forcing an extra climax on the film where father fights son in the desert? The film had already reached an emotional and physical climax with Betty managing to "bring down" the Hulk on the streets of San Francisco after the explosive battle across the California desert. There was no need to extend the film much beyond that.

Much has been made of Lee's use of split screens, melds, wipes, and insets--giving the movie an almost comic-bookish look--and my own take was that sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Too often, it felt like Lee was suffering from new-toy-itis (especially during the sequence when Banner was transferred to the desert base), but at other times the device was very effective (particularly during the testing of the gamma device that would later catalyze the Hulk's existence).

It is inevitable to compare this to other recent Marvel films, in this era where Marvel can do little wrong on the big screen. The Hulk, to my mind, falls somewhere between the magnificent Spider-Man and the wretched Daredevil--and it shares characteristics with both. Like Spider-Man, the character's origin had to be revised to fit with modern sensibilities. In the early 1960s, radiation was magic and not well understood. In the early 2000s, Spider-Man substituted genetic engineering as the magic bullet, whereas The Hulk went for nanotechnology. And, like Daredevil, The Hulk has an extra climax.

Still, overall, it's a good-if-flawed movie--certainly a good adaptation of the story to a new medium.

[First published in the June 2003 issue of SFRevu.]

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