(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2003)
It seems now that every mass-market comic book movie comes with a spin about how this particular movie represents a more cerebral take on the material (whether Batman, Spiderman, X-Men etc.) than we’ve ever seen before. And now we have Ang Lee’s Hulk, for which some of this commentary is more than usually persuasive. Here’s Roger Ebert:
Dealing with issues
“The movie brings up issues about genetic experimentation, the misuse of scientific research and our instinctive dislike of misfits, and actually talks about them. Remember that Ang Lee is the director of films such as The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility, as well as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; he is trying here to actually deal with the issues in the story of the Hulk, instead of simply cutting to brainless special effects…Lee has broadly taken the broad outlines of a comic book story and transformed them to his own purposes; this is a comic book movie for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at a comic book movie.”
The film stars Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, whose research into DNA takes an unexpected turn when he’s accidentally exposed to a huge dose of deadly radiation. It should kill him, but he doesn’t know that he inherited abnormal DNA from his presumed-dead father, also a scientist, who experimented on himself before Bruce was conceived. The DNA/radiation combination turns him into the Hulk, a raging green beast who emerges whenever Bruce loses his cool. Rival scientists duel with the military for the economic and strategic potential of this genetic breakthrough, but Bruce’s ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) is the only one who seems to care about him, including his father (Nick Nolte) who now reappears with his own crazy schemes in mind.
Remarkably for a film of this kind of breadth, Hulk has only five characters of any consequence: Banner father and son, Connelly and her father (Sam Elliott) who leads the military efforts, and a scheming scientist played by Josh Lucas: over 95% of the film’s dialogue goes to this quintet. Especially given the doubling of the parental estrangement theme (Connelly and Elliott have an icy relationship), this concentration of interaction lends the film a uniquely odd feeling: of an anguished chamber piece, almost a stage piece, played out on an absurdly vast canvas.
Full of talk
The film has a vague handle on a witty central metaphor: Banner’s relationship with Connelly was on the rocks because of his emotional inaccessibility; turning into the Hulk is the ultimate remedy to that problem…but of course introduces its own problems. In some relationships, you just can’t win! There’s almost no humour in the film though. Lee obviously understands the Hulk’s potential as metaphor – how could you not? – but seems to have no specific strategy for unlocking it, other than to have his camera stare somewhat plaintively at the characters.
As Ebert says, the film is full of talk, but it’s absurd to suggest it has anything significant to say on the subjects he lists. The loquaciousness seems to me more like a sign of frail self-confidence on Lee’s part, almost like a delaying tactic before he surrenders to the action. Throughout the opening section, Lee uses a dazzling array of techniques for transitioning from one scene to the next: all manners of wipes and dissolves and blends and split screens. It’s broadly reminiscent of comic book style, of the artist’s ability to control the tone by varying the size and placement of individual frames. Sometimes, the effect in the film is rather beautiful, but it’s an aesthetic approach that calls attention to itself, and to the movie as an artificiality. And all the talk, despite its superficial “depth,” can’t overcome the story’s perhaps insurmountable silliness.
Recent comic-book movies played up their protagonists’ sexiness by emphasizing their sleek, sexy muscularity. This option isn’t really available to the makers of the Hulk, who are stuck with an absurd, lumbering green monster. Even the film’s defenders have criticized, to varying degrees, the computer-generated character for not looking real enough. At worst, in long shot, it’s like watching a mere green blob moving across the landscape (“Toss a plastic toy figure across your yard,” said Glenn Lovell of the San Jose Mercury News, “and you’ll have a good approximation of what this film’s $140 million-plus budget bought its producers”). In close-up, the Hulk looks more convincing, but still inherently absurd.
The Abstract Hulk
Even so, the action scenes still often have a certain grace to them, although there’s nothing to match the duel above the treetops in Crouching Tiger. But they lack any sort of conviction. We’ve all become used to the trade-off entailed by computer-generated wonders: as the spectacle’s wow value goes up, our emotional involvement in it goes down. Watching action scenes now is more about grading the execution, measured against the ever-increasing stakes laid down by other big movies, than about visceral investment. One of the ultimate examples is the fight scene from Matrix Reloaded between Keanu Reeves and the dozens of Hugo Weaving clones. It’s hard to remember a more impressive display, both in conception and execution. But as many writers commented, it nevertheless leaves you flat, because there’s no sense of danger to it whatsoever. And how could there be? When you had Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine beating each other to a pulp on top of a moving train, then you felt some danger.
Lee compounds the abstraction of the action scenes by staging many of them in the desert, always a movie locale of such resonance that the most straightforward thing seems symbolic. The scenes seem underpopulated and stark – echoing the film’s lack of substantial people. It’s as though the film was a microscope, stripping away the usual action movie diversions to illuminate its central psychodrama. In this sense, Lee’s more contemplative “Eastern” side is amply evident in the film. But much as he indulges the characters to a point, he doesn’t invest them with the detail and rough edges that would make them into more than archetypes. Bana was apparently deliberately directed to be fairly bland, the better to support the contrast with the beast within him. It seems a simplistic strategy. The biggest disappointment is Nolte, who’s almost always compelling in his films, but not here.
When the concept of Ang Lee directing a Hulk movie was announced a couple of years ago, it was startling and exciting, and you had no idea how it would work. Now the movie’s out, and it’s a testimony to the concept that you almost want Lee to direct a sequel and get it right next time. But the artistic update’s too limited. He’s in the same spot now as Martin Scorsese after Gangs of New York – someone for whom going back to smaller movies wouldn’t be a limitation, but a liberation.