Director : Ang Lee
Screenplay : John Turman and Michael Frances and James Schamus (story by James Schamus)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Eric Bana (Bruce Banner), Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross), Sam Elliott (General Ross), Josh Lucas (Talbot), Nick Nolte (David Banner), Paul Kersey (Young David Banner), Cara Buono (Edith Banner), Kevin Rankin (Harper), Celia Weston (Mrs. Krensler), Mike Erwin (Teenage Bruce Banner)
Ang Lee’s ambitious big-screen version of Hulk is much like the titular green behemoth himself: Grand in scale and purpose, it is a weighty, muscular adaptation of the popular comic book series, but its own bulk often gets in the way. At times elegant and other times clumsy, Hulk is frequently entertaining, but too often dour and humorless, the clear result of the filmmakers’ passionate attempt to infuse the pulp material with a deeper meaning.
The Hulk as a comic book character has been around since 1962, and he has always been one of Marvel Comics’ most complex and disturbing heroes. It is surely the creature’s psychological complexities (particularly his repressive tendencies) that drew director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus, who worked together on The Ice Storm (1997) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), to the project, and it shows. The movie certainly has its share of action, and those looking for chaotic scenes of the Hulk smashing things up will not be disappointed (there is also a fantastic battle to the death between the Hulk and three hulkified mutant dogs, one of which is, I kid you not, a French poodle). Yet, the majority of the narrative focuses on such heady issues as repression, childhood trauma, and Oedipal father issues, which comes close to weighing the movie down into a moody bore.
The relatively unknown Eric Bana (Chopper, Black Hawk Down) was tapped to play scientist Bruce Banner, who, once exposed to gamma radiation, finds that he morphs into an enormous, green-skinned monstrosity when his anger is aroused. The background for this metamorphosis is given new life by coscreenwriter Schamus, who introduces the character of Bruce’s father, David Banner (a frighteningly unshorn Nick Nolte), a mad scientist whose fevered desire to “improve” the human race leads him to conduct dangerous experiments on himself, the results of which are then passed down genetically to his son (a key literalization of the father’s sins being passed to his offspring). The movie’s opening segments take place on a military base in the early 1960s, where four-year-old Bruce witnesses a terrible event involving his father and beloved mother (Cara Buono), the details of which are not revealed until much later in the story (although what “the big event” is seems pretty obvious, which makes its later revelation something of a letdown).
As an adult, Bruce is reserved and closed, so much so that he can’t even maintain a relationship with a beautiful fellow scientist, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), whose Army general father (Sam Elliott) just happens to be the man who cracked down on Bruce’s father’s illegal experiments back in the 1960s. Bruce’s repressed emotions and memories become the stuff that fuels the Hulk and all the violence he inflicts. When he transforms, Bruce doesn’t remember what he does as the Hulk except as vague, dream-like images, although he does confess in one of the movie’s most moving scenes that, when the change starts to occur, he likes it. And who wouldn’t? Part Jekyll and Hyde, part King Kong, and part Frankenstein, the Hulk is pure fury unleashed, and his unstoppablility is a paean to our barely disguised desire to throw off the shackles of society and let our id run free.
Unlike most comic-book adaptations, there is no clear-cut hero and villain in Hulk. Considering that he is the physical incarnation of repressed anger, the Hulk himself is not a bad guy—just misunderstood. He is even capable of genuine tenderness whenever he is in the presence of Betty, but this points up one of the movie’s central weaknesses, namely that Bruce and Betty’s emotional connection never generates any real heat. There is an emotional connection between them in that they are both the children of neglectful egomaniacs, but that never fully registers in their interactions. It feels like a plot necessity, rather than a genuine relationship, and the movie’s Beauty-and-the-Beast ethos often suffers as a result. If there is a villain in the movie, it’s David Banner and his ludicrous ambitions and lack of care for anyone but himself, although there is also a yuppie businessman (Josh Lucas) who happens to be one of Betty’s ex-flames and wants to exploit the Hulk’s unique DNA in the name of capitalism.
Of course, the thing people are talking about the most are the digital effects in Hulk and whether the green giant looks real. To be honest, the effects are a mixed bag, as has been the case with all fully computer-generated characters, from Yoda to Gollum. When he doesn’t move much, the Hulk is quite convincing, and some of his close-ups have the kind of emotional detail that really registers. On the other hand, some of the action sequences that involve the Hulk running or bouncing (he can leaps thousands of feet at a time) look too cartoonish. It’s never horribly distracting, though, although it makes one wish that the filmmakers had kept the Hulk lurking the shadows more than they did.
If the digital Hulk is sometimes lacking, the rest of the movie’s visual approach is a knock-out. Lee and editor Tim Squyres (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) have devised a consistently enthralling use of split-screens, picture-in-picture, vertical and horizontal wipes, and rapid zooms to replicate the visual appeal of a comic book layout, so at various times it appears as though you’re glancing across comic panels that have come to life. It’s a dizzying, often exhilarating visual feat that does wonders in intensifying the narrative and keeping it moving along, even when it bottlenecks in a somewhat ludicrous climax that may have people returning to theaters just to figure out what exactly happened.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick