A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Hulk (2003)

October 18, 2010

Hulk (2003)

This movie is an enigma to me. Ever since it came out it’s been a punchline – a joke about what a colossal failure the movie was. People said that the film was too cerebral. That it didn’t have enough action or enough Hulk or something. I’ve just never understood it. True, you don’t get to see the big green lug until more than forty minutes into the film, but that’s just sort of in the nature of an origin story. Maybe the problem lies in the liberties that have been taken with the cannon?

Amanda’s talking in her review about how she never really was exposed to the Hulk. I’ll admit that I never read any of the Hulk comic books, but he was very much a part of my youth. Staples of my Saturday morning cartoon viewing were the Hulk cartoons of the eighties. I watched the live action Hulk on TV every week. (It was part of a youth oriented block of programs on Chanel 25 – The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman and Buck Rogers.) So, yeah, I kind of grew up with Bruce Banner and his alter-ego and his constant battle with his own nature. There’s a certain simple rhythm to a Hulk episode. Banner arrives in some new location. He befriends the locals. The military (or some other group of nefarious bad guys) shows up and causes havoc either in the pursuit of the Hulk or for their own reasons. Banner hulks out and the Hulk wreaks havoc. Then Bruce has to go into hiding again before his past can catch up with him, leaving his new found friends. It must have been a challenge for the writers to keep such a simple and monotonous theme fresh.

So, no, in the end this isn’t just another Hulk episode. Oh, it is exactly what you would expect from a big budget movie version of the franchise. The Hulk does battle with the entire power of the U.S. Military. He fights a mega-powered super-foe. But at the same time something new needed to be injected into the formula, and in this case what they’ve decided to insert is a heaping helping of back story. The Bruce Banner of this movie is haunted by nightmares that stem from some traumatic event that occurred when he was a young boy. Much of it comes from some event that happened at the end of the lengthy opening credit sequence. His father in this adaptation is a brilliant but mad scientist himself who was denied permission to expand his research into genetic modification with a goal towards developing regenerating immortal super-soldiers into human trials. (I can’t imagine why.) So like any self-respecting mad scientist the father experiments on himself – mutating his own genes and passing on the mutation to his son. Then there’s a falling out with the military officer who commands the base on which Dr. Banner is working and all his research is eliminated – in a rage Dr. Banner returns home and does… something which isn’t really explained until about two thirds of the way through the movie.

The upshot of this whole thing is that thirty years later, when Bruce – the son – is working on experiments involving gamma rays and “nanno meds” (which are some kind of microscopic healing agent) the inevitable disaster that should have killed him actually awakens some potential hidden in his altered genetic code. This, blended with the mysterious (but heavily telegraphed) traumatic event in his childhood, is what creates the Hulk. I actually think all of this works quite well. The only bit of the plot that feels odd to me is the strange coincidence that finds Bruce Banner working on his experiments with the daughter of the officer that first put the kibosh on his father’s experiments. A girl, by the way, who was supposedly on the same military base the Bruce was born on. Still – such synchronicities happen in this kind of movie so I can pretty easily ignore it. I like that there’s a bit more of a background to the event that creates the Hulk than just the magic of irradiation. Massive doses of radiation might have been enough to explain super heroes in the comic books of the sixties, but nowadays they’re more likely to explain cancer and corpses – so it’s nice to have at least an attempt to explain why Bruce is so special.

I will admit that much of the dialog in the movie has all the subtlety of a hammer blow to the face. At the start of the movie when Betty Ross is talking to Bruce about why they just broke up (which break-up never really makes sense in that there is never any feel that there’s any friction of any kind between the two characters) the lines are almost wince-inducing. Luckily that ham-fisted dialog is coming from the mouth of the very accomplished Jennifer Connelly, and she manages to make it almost work. Indeed the casting throughout this movie is very well done. Sam Elliott is perfect as Betsy’s steely-eyed military father. He’s great at playing the driven man with a purpose (although having already reviewed Ghost Rider both Amanda and I chuckled when he referred to Bruce as “cursed.”) Bruce’s father is played by a very creepy and dishevelled Nick Nolte. (No doubt you will recall the mugshots from that time – apparently Nick is a method actor and didn’t get out of character.) Bruce Banner himself is played by Eric Bana, who does a great job of acting like a timid guy with a raging temper he is afraid to let go. And the Hulk is played – Andy Serkis style – by director Ang Lee in a motion capture suit.

I recall that most of the promotional material from Universal at the time this movie was released concentrated on the gritty realism of the digital Hulk created by the wizards at ILM. For the most part I think that those special effects worked well. There are a LOT of effects shots in this movie. After that long build up over the first forty minutes the Hulk does get to wreak some big-budget movie mayhem, and I enjoy watching it unfold. He has a sense of mass and power to him which sells it I think. It’s just fun to watch the Hulk ripping apart a military base, beating up tanks and helicopters and generally being responsible for massive amounts of property damage. (The battle with a trio of silly looking Hulk Dogs works somewhat less well… really that bit should have ended up on the cutting room floor, but maybe they spent too much money on the scene to lose it?) I even like the final father/son confrontation – even if it has a bit of a quick cop-out ending.

One thing that definitely stands out about this movie is the almost experimental film techniques that Ang Lee employs. He breaks up the action into panels inspired by a comic book page a lot, which only really works about half the time. It’s an ambitious thing to have tried. Perhaps too ambitious. I understand what he’s going for, but in order to pull it off he needs to create an entirely new visual vocabulary, or at least find a way to transport that of a well established medium to film. Sometimes it does add to the action with its sense of frenetic pace and things going on simultaneously in several places, but much of the time it is simply jarring. Comic book artists have had decades to refine the art of composition on the page to allow the action to flow properly, and I don’t think that in the space of a single movie Ang could really hope to capture it too well. It’s an odd stylistic choice which certainly sets this film apart from everything else in the genre, but like I said it doesn’t quite work.

Overall though I have to say I enjoy this movie. It has some fun Hulk smashing action. It has some back story which makes it feel richer than your average comic book adaptation. It has a fantastic cast and some super special effects. Yeah, it’s not perfect, but I’ve never understood why it is so often lambasted. I’d say of the two Hulk movies I own it is the better one.

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October 18, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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