Hulk (2003)

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A repressed scientist turns into Shrek.

Yeah, I’m afraid computer animation is still not up to the job of creating lifelike characters interacting with humans, though great strides have been made. The way the character moves is usually where the worst shortcomings are. And the Hulk character is not as convincingly implemented as some other recent CGI characters have been, such as Gollum or (Lord help us) Jar Jar Binks — and certainly no match for King Kong, made two years later. They worked very hard on making the Hulk’s body realistic, but not hard enough. For instance, they gave the body layers of skin and muscle and tried to make them all move authentically, but they forgot that muscle goes slack when it’s not in use. The facial expressions are also less than convincing, probably because they used motion-capture for body movement (and Ang Lee did the motion-acting himself) but not for the face. (Facial motion-capture is indeed available; it’s used in The Polar Express.) Unfortunately, the lavish budget for the rest of the movie makes this one area of unrealism stick out more noticeably.

Realism is a key question here, because this is a film that presents everything else so authentically and believably — the scientists, for instance, are the most true-to-life of any comic book film — that accepting the premise of an all-out scientifically absurd comic book version of the Hulk, not toned down at all, is pretty difficult. “If we tone it down, it wouldn’t be an action blockbuster,” the money-men must have said. The problem is most pronounced in the film’s final battle, which really stretches things into the further realms of implausibility, and is the reason the film earned one tent. The Hulk is one of the harder comic book characters to swallow... I kind of wish they’d picked a different one for Ang Lee to tackle, like maybe Spider-Man.

Because within the limitations mentioned, he’s made a masterpiece. It might be the best existing comic book movie, and is far superior to most action blockbuster fare outside the comic book field too. His version of the story has considerable originality, and has a depth and level of maturity never previously brought to this kind of film, standing head and shoulders and massive chest above every other comic-derived film, and most other action movies. The tale is presented and developed with a mastery and an artistry that I don’t think has ever been seen before in a summer blockbuster — in fact, it’s possibly the finest film ever to be marketed as an action spectacular. Almost every other major comic book movie does little more, in the end, than tell the familiar story that readers of the comic already know... this one does far more, and creates a genuinely new story within the old outline.

“Your name is not Krensler. It’s Banner.”

Ang Lee tips his hat to the comic origin not by making the story’s environment look stylized, a la Batman (1989) or Dick Tracy, but by techniques such as frequently breaking up the screen into multiple framed boxes, fancy blendings of consecutive scenes, and cuts to different viewpoints even when the action is static, mimicking the way consecutive comic panels always view the scene from different directions. He uses this technique to assemble montages which in some cases, notably the opening credits, pack in quite a lot of exposition of the sort that would normally require contrived and excessive dialogue. By spreading parts of the action out in space instead of time, he can fit in more story without making the movie feel rushed, or making it too long. In lesser hands this technique could have been a cheap failed gimmick, but in his it’s a bold and successful artistic choice. He uses splendid scenery, particularly of the southwestern desert, balanced by a rich use of contrasting water symbolism. He also gives the Hulk’s tale a little connection to hero-cycle archetypes, but unlike most movies, he does it in the most understated way possible, so you can barely spot it by looking, instead of rubbing your face in it like most movies nowadays.

Of course, as is necessarily the case with bold artistic choices, some won’t like it at all. Some will find the realism of the characters to be jarringly out of sync with the blatant artificiality of the editing tricks. But you know... I bet a lot of the people who disparage this Hulk liked Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon just fine... and every single criticism that can be laid at the feet of this film is equally true of that one. In the end, an unexpected technique either works for you or it doesn’t...

Many other people, of course, were disappointed by this movie because all they wanted to see was lots and lots of HULK SMASH, rather than a bunch of origin story. But the fact is, in 2003 this was as much Hulk Smash as $150,000,000 could buy. It wasn’t that Ang Lee wasn’t willing to fill lots of screen time with action; he had to cut back sometimes for cost reasons. There are still some Hulk action scenes that run to a good satisfying length.

Ang Lee’s methods of storytelling are so perfectly nuanced that the movie needs almost no conventional exposition. In fact, they did film one such scene near the beginning, and cut it out (not without leaving some dangling references to it)... and I think this is the first time I’ve ever watched a DVD’s deleted scenes and agreed that every one of them was correctly removed. And his action directing is the kind I find most believable: real-time, messy, random, and largely free of show-off stunts... the exact opposite of the kind of balletic choreography you see in the Hong Kong type of action films.

There is subtle indirection used at several points so that plot developments end up surprising you... for instance, hitting you with human drama when you’ve been led to expect science-fictional wonders, and vice versa. But it’s not a film that loses its value once you know the surprises; it’s one that gains depth on re-watching.

The acting is mostly good; Jennifer Connelly and Nick Nolte are considerable talents, though some don’t care for their styles, and Sam Elliott as “Thunderbolt” Ross is really excellent. General Ross’s character was handled uncommonly well, with respect for his point of view and his sense of duty, despite it being in direct conflict with the scientist protagonists. Unlike almost every other movie where somebody from the government tries to kill or imprison the hero, this movie remembers that his reasons for doing so are really quite valid. He turns out to be much more trustworthy than his adversarial role would suggest. Conversely, another major character turns out to be much less trustworthy than you’d presume. The only character who’s really one-dimensional is a military contractor sleazeball played by Josh Lucas.

Acting-wise, though Nolte could be accused of overacting (he gets all the most overblown lines, in keeping with the narcissism of his character), and Connelly of underacting (as usual), only Eric Bana in the lead role is a bit disappointing... he’s good at showing submerged rage, but he doesn’t really get how to be a repressed, bottled-up nerd. Almost nobody in Hollywood ever does, come to think of it. Here’s a tip, guys: think 50% Jeff Goldblum, and 50% Daniel Roebuck as the teenage killer in River’s Edge. You need a bit of that sociopathic flattened affect. Or try playing the character as semi-autistic. Anyway, when another character tells him that he stands out as nerdy even among other scientists, you don’t buy it.

I would have given this film the #1 ranking if not for the preposterosity of the final battle. The flaws in the animation also cost it a bit. But this really is the first authentic action blockbuster art film, and successful on both of those levels. And I’ll bet you good money that it will be the last. How will anyone pull off that combination again? Especially since this one barely broke even in theatrical release.

The bottom line is, despite its flaws I love this movie. It’s one of the most replayed DVDs I own. I even love Danny Elfman’s score. Like the film itself, many won’t care for it, but for me it’s my favorite thing he’s ever done in orchestral format.