REVIEW: 'The Hulk'

Wed, June 18th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

TV/Film
Rob Worley, Columnist

This review contains minor spoilers

Comic book movies. What are they? Are comics-to-film a genre? What is the

filmmakers' task in creating a comic book movie? These seem to be the questions

filmmakers stumble on from time-to-time.

One school of thought is that comic book movies are, in fact, a genre and

that, when adapting a comic book, you should not only adapt the stories and

concepts, but the "comic booky-ness" of it as well. You adapt the

medium.

This gives way to things like the "Batman" TV show, with the voice

over narration standing in for the captions found on the comic book page, and

graphics reading "BAM," "POW" and "ZAP" appearing

on the screen, obscuring the action.

Another example is the "Dick Tracy" movie in which all art design

was mandated to be in four colors, just like the comic strips.

This thinking generally leads to some miserable film fare. After all, why use

sound effect graphics when you can actually use audible sound effects? Why try

to enforce a four-color palette, when you have a much greater variety (or lack,

if black and white is your choice) of colors as a filmmaker? Isn't a big, red

wrench distracting?

When adapting a novel, would a filmmaker try to emulate the words-on-paper or

turning-pages presentation of the book?

No, the best comic adaptations are the ones that adapt the stories and

concepts without trying to adapt the medium itself. Let the film be the film.

Ang Lee's "The Hulk" is a highly ambitious attempt to do a movie

that is part adult psychodrama, part popcorn, roller coaster tentpole, part film

and part comic book. Yes, Lee trips on the idea of bringing the comic-booky-ness

into the film, but for the most part the movie succeeds many levels.

THE COMIC BOOKY-NESS

This is my major complaint about the movie so lets get it out of the way,

before moving on to the good stuff.

I got a sinking feeling when the titles for "The Hulk" started to

roll. After rolling the now-familiar Marvel card (although it's been turned

green and Hulk-i-fied for this picture) we get into the main credits. Although

they play on a suitable creepy montage of mad-scientist experiments being

conducted by David Banner the credits themselves are rendered in standard,

hand-lettered comic book font.

To me, this is a good example of an aesthetic misfire prompted by an

attempt to capture the comic-booky-ness of "The Hulk." Why not use a

font that mates with the dark science lab setting? Perhaps one that mirrors

David Banner's journal scrawl or a computer readout. Why choose a comic book

font that would be glaringly incompatible with this sequence in any other movie?

The misfire is repeated in the closing credits as well, which are not only

rendered in the same font, but also bounded by panels and word balloons.

For me the most jarring application of comic booky-ness is the multi-panel

split screens and whiz-bang transitions employed by Lee throughout the movie.

Yes, in "The Hulk" the story is sometimes displayed in two or more

panels on the screen: just like a comic book!

The idea is to intensify the affects of certain scenes by giving you the fine

details along with the big picture. For example, you can get two or three close

up reactions along with the large action of the scene, all one the screen at the

same time.

On my first viewing of the movie, I found the effect very distracting. There

were times I found myself thinking less about the story and more about the

stylistic choices.

Indeed some of the transitions (especially one focusing on Glen Talbot

mid-way through the movie) are so over-done that they complete defuse the

carefully built tension of the scene.

While the effect of the panels and transitions was lessened for me on the

second viewing of the movie, I still think they detract from the movie more than

they add to it. In some cases it was downright frustrating to have the most

interesting image crowded out by others.

The attempt to bring comic booky-ness to "The Hulk" often times

prevented me from getting immersed in the film, which is too bad because it's a

film worth getting immersed in.

SERIOUS MINDED

Jarring stylistic problems aside, Lee's approach to "The Hulk" may

be one of the most serious-minded comic adaptations in quite some time. The

journey of repressed scientist Bruce Banner is a dark and lonely road.

Bruce was born on a military base in the western desert. His father, David

Banner, is a military scientist obsessed with the study of genetic alterations.

In classic mad scientist form, David experiments on himself when the military

oversight gets too restrictive. As a result both he and baby Bruce are forever

altered.

Outraged by Banner's lack of ethics, General Ross shuts him down and thereby

thwarts any opportunities the man has to cure his child. What follows is a dark

traumatic event that will plague young Bruce into present day.

This is how you adapt a comic book: isolate a great story beat from the

series and focus the movie's story on it.

In the present Bruce (Eric Bana) goes by his adopted name Krenzler. Like his

birth father he's a brilliant scientist pursuing genetic studies. He's aided by

the beautiful Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) in the development of

gamma-irradiated nanomeds, designed to heal humans from catastrophic ailments.

Circling the project is General Ross (Betty's father played by Sam Elliott),

Glen Talbot (a slimy military-scientist-turned-corporate-weasel played by Josh

Lucas) and the university's mysterious new janitor (Nick Nolte).

As expected, when one of Banner's experiments goes terribly awry, all Hulk

breaks loose.

GREAT CAST

"The Hulk" is blessed with a cast of immense acting talent.

Eric Bana gives a terrific, understated performance as the uber-repressed

scientist. For most of his screen time, Bruce Banner comes off like a guy who is

genuinely uncomfortable in his own skin.

He's almost completely incapable of dealing with confrontations. When his lab

assistant points out that Banner seems geeky, even to other scientist, the best

Banner can muster is a lame retort. Later, he's no match for the in-your-face

machismo of General Ross, the intellectual manipulations of Banner Sr. and the

venal aggression of Talbot.

But the enemy that Banner struggles with most is the enemy within and that

dark secret that lurks behind the closed doors of his childhood.

Bana conveys his character's pervasive unease with stares and body language

that speaks volumes.

Nick Nolte is mad scientist to the hilt. Pretty much looking like his

drug-bust mug shot and dressing in the latest homeless fashion, Nolte gives the

most riveting, if over-the-top performance of the film. He ranges from quiet

menace when confronting Betty, to disturbing appeal when trying to win back

Bruce, to frail, fractured victim when confronted by Hulk, to raging madman when

he fully steps into the villain role.

Whichever way he plays it, Nolte's scenes are always interesting. You can't

take your eyes off of him.

Jennifer Connelly is, once again, cast as the girl worth staying sane for.

While Banner is beset on all sides by characters wanting to a piece of him for

their own ends, Betty is the only one looking for his soul. Indeed one of the

most heartfelt scenes in the movie is when Bruce tells Betty, "You found

me."

CGI LEADING MAN

One concern on everyone's mind is the CGI. The Hulk may be the most ambitious

CGI character of all time, having to carry a large portion of screen time, range

from comic book action to human emotion and fit in with real world cast and

settings. Indeed, it's the main point fans have been fretting over since Super

Bowl.

There are moviegoers who will know going in that they dislike the CGI Hulk,

and watching the movie probably won't change their minds. In certain scenes Hulk

does look like a CGI cartoon character: Shrek on steroids.

The effect is worst when the character is in enclosed, real-world settings,

like his lab early on. But while these scenes may have looked "too CG"

they never failed to look cool. Watching Banner Hulk out and smash up the lab is

just good fun.

When the CG Hulk busts out of the interiors and rampages through outdoor

settings the character really shines.

The brutal fight with the hulked-out dogs in the redwood forest is a

spectacular nail-biter.

Hulk's battle in the desert with tanks and helicopters is, quite simply, one

of the most staggering examples of comic-book action ever rendered to film.

There's a shot where Hulk has realized there are tanks nearby firing on him

and we see, through the perspective of the soldiers, this massive, green monster

running at us through a hail of artillery and sand...it's pure, stomach-dropping

adrenaline.

This is how you adapt a comic book: isolate what's cool about the source

material and blow it up in a way that only film can.

From that moment on "The Hulk" offers up one visual spectacle after

another, building up with the climax where Banner and Hulk have to confront

their true foe.

GRIPES

The movie is not without it's flaws. As mentioned, I found the stylistic vote

for comic booky-ness to be a detraction.

I also have to admit that the movie seems slow getting started. Like the

lengthy preamble to this very review, it takes a long time for Lee and company

to get all the pieces (both physical and metaphysical) in place. The first leg

of the movie is likely to elicit some yawns.

There are also certain plot devices that break down if you think about them

too much. The nature of the Hulk dogs is sketchy, as is the nature of David

Banner's mutation. Why is Betty so adept at locating a fugitive when her

father's vast military resources cannot? How does David Banner manage to keep

such a low profile when he always seems to be traveling with three large,

intimidating dogs?

THE VERDICT

In spite of the flaws, Hulk succeeds in what it sets out to be: a mix of

high-octane summer action and moody drama. No Hulk fan, particularly one who

loved the Hulk vs. military leg of the character's long-running exploits, will be

disappointed by the movie.

 
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