Friday, July 1, 2011

The Compound Geekery Film Festival! "Hulk"

  • So we're starting out with, chosen at random, 2003's Hulk. Also sometimes known as The Hulk.

The Hulk was created for Marvel Comics in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Originally the character was colored gray but the inks of that time period could not create a consistent shade of gray each and every time. So at the behest of the colorist Lee changed the Hulk's color to green.

Lee has stated that his two influences in the creation of the character were Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Later writers would also add elements of Beauty and the Beast to the character as well.

Over the course of decades there have actually been different versions of the Hulk and different elements added to and subtracted from the characters of both Bruce Banner and the Hulk.... but we'll get into that a little later. For the most part the Hulk in the comic books has always been able to talk but many people are probably more familiar with the TV series from the 1970's in which body builder Lou Ferigno played the Hulk as pretty much mute with the exception of grunts and growls.

But that's probably enough of that -- let's take a look at the movie...

The Plot: David Banner is a scientist working for the military to try to find ways of allowing humans to recover from serious injuries -- even to the point of being able to regenerate severed limbs. When his request to move toward human testing is denied he begins experimenting on himself. When his son is born he realizes that his experiments on himself have yielded genetic changes in his son.

When the military uncovers his unorthodox experiments, however, he is ordered to shut down his research. Enraged, David Banner goes to extreme measures... something happens and little Bruce Banner locks away his memories...

Years later Bruce Krienzler is a researcher working to produce rapid healing in humans using a combination of nanotechnology and radiation therapy. Bruce's partner in research is also his former love Betty Ross. Their results are up to that point fatal when an accident in the lab exposes Bruce to the nanotechnology and radiation and he miraculously survives. But something has been awakened in Bruce... something that feeds on his emotions and the hidden genetic changes in his body. Bruce's dark past is about to come back to haunt him in a big way...

And that past takes a physical form as well. David Banner is out of prison and looking to reconnect with his son... but his motives may not be so pure...

The Hulk has now been given life and Bruce is trapped in a nightmare of power and rage...

My Take: This film was largely polarizing. critics were split on it with some loving it and others panning it. The comic book fan community largely hated it and it did not perform well at the box office despite being anticipated as a Summer blockbuster.

Here's the thing about the movie... It's a GOOD movie... It just isn't a good HULK movie.

Director Ang Lee, riding high after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon threw himself into the movie wholeheartedly -- actively working to make the film look like a comic book. From the fonts on the opening credits to many of the transitions, the movie looks more like a comic book brought to life than pretty much any other comic book film in the last decade. The screen is split into panels in places and other sequences look like splash panels.

The cinematography here is simply gorgeous -- long shots of desert scenery which blend with CGI to transform into the interior of the human body or lichens growing on tree stumps. At another point a photograph comes to life and draws the audience into a flashback. It's wonderful, wonderful stuff and all contribute to a dreamlike atmosphere.

Which is another thing here. Dreams play a big role in the film. Characters seem to often have prophetic dreams or they dream of the past. Sometimes flashbacks actually prove to be part of someone else's dream and all of the dreams contain heavy symbolism. Dreams and emotions all wrap up inside one another and the whole film has a quiet, hypnotic, dreamlike feel to it -- including the score by famed composer Danny Elfman.

And this is the problem. It's a Hulk movie. If there is anything the comic book Hulk is known for it's the phrase "Hulk smash!" This quiet, slow paced film which digs deep into the psyche of it's characters is totally foreign to the big, hulking bruiser of the comic books who regularly tears up city blocks. The film is also missing quite a bit of Bruce Banner's angst. Bruce was virtually created angsty in the comics. A man tortured by the fact that he had to live with this rampaging Id always waiting to be unleashed. For the movie Bruce is more bewildered by his new alter ego than tortured by it.

The movie also makes a few other missteps like:

some of the symbolic imagery being so terribly obvious it's less "symbolic" and more "bash you over the head with a sledgehammer".

Nick Nolte's performance as David Banner is well.... 'psychotic father is psychotic.' There is no real subtlety and it's amazing that none of the characters call the cops on creepy David Banner since he does everything to be as creepy and obvious as possible that he is mentally unhinged.

The "Hulk Dogs". Ohhhh, these things received howls of laughter from fans... and deservedly so. Using Bruce's DNA David Banner manages to turn his three mean dogs (which seem to follow him around everywhere for no good reason) into Hulk-like creatures. The CGI was laughable then and really hasn't aged well now and the execution of the idea in general doesn't make them seem threatening but instead a joke. Despite that though I gotta say that the idea behind it also makes me really uncomfortable as a dog lover. This jerk mutates his dogs and then the Hulk bashes them around violently and smashes them to bits. *Wince*!

The film also waits a little too long to give us our big, bad villain. We spend a little too much time dealing with everyone's psychological make-up and repressed memories and we don't get a real enemy for the Hulk until the last twenty minutes of the film or so.

Related to that, the final fight scene is simply an incomprehensible mess. We really don't understand what is going on or why and therefore it turns the climax into an anti-climax.


As a comic book reader... well, I've got to confess I was never much of a Hulk fan but one of my friends was and I grew up on the old TV series. I know enough about the character to see the comic book influences in the movie as well as the way they diverted from them. In the original comics Betty Ross was not originally a scientist -- although the change here works okay and doesn't seem out of step for the character.

Also, the original origin story was much more suited to the Cold War setting of the original comic book -- a young teenager named Rick Jones accidentally wandered onto a testing site for a new Gamma bomb. Seeing him, Bruce left the safety of the block house and rushed out to try to save the youth. The countdown not able to be halted and with no time to clear the area, Bruce threw Rick into a ditch and covered him with his own body, shielding him from the radiation... yeah, I know, radiation doesn't work that way. It's comic book science and it was the 1960's.

For the movie it gets an update with technobabble about "Nanomeds" and gamma radiation. For the film Rick Jones is jettisoned for Bruce and Betty's lab assistant who is working on the equipment in the lab when he accidentally causes a short circuit which sets the sequence off. Bruce rushes into the containment room, puts an oxygen mask on the young man so he won't breathe in the "Nanomeds" (although now Bruce, himself does) and then throws himself over the machinery with fires the gamma radiation -- using his body to absorb the radiation. And yeah, radiation STILL doesn't work that way.

Do the changes work? Eeehhhh... sort of. I think it adds a new layer of complexity that isn't necessary as instead of Bruce spontaneously mutating to form the Hulk it now becomes the combination of genetic changes inherited from his father with combine with the radiation and the Nanomeds to make him become the Hulk. It requires the idea of this kind of perfect storm of coincidence to create the character that strains the cables on the suspension of disbelief bridge.

The psychological issues were also a later addition to the comics books. At first the Hulk was simply a matter of Id vs. Superego but round about the 1980's or 1990's writers added something new to the mythology by introducing the idea that Bruce's father had been an abusive jerk and as a child Bruce had witnessed his father beating his mother but repressed the memories. These repressed memories helped fuel his equally repressed rage which led to the Hulk.

This film took the basic idea that Bruce's father had some anger management issues as well as hints that Bruce had a naturally repressed personality and built from there. With these additions, though, I'm still on the fence as to whether they work or not. On the one hand, the scenes in the film are strikingly done but on the other hand they don't really fully integrate into the characters -- this part of the film remains more David's story than Bruce's.

There is also the problem of David Banner -- Bruce's father. Rather late in the film he develops super powers of his own... which leads to David becoming basically the Absorbing Man -- although they don't call him this. The Absorbing Man is a long-time comic book villain. He was originally introduced as an enemy of Thor but he went on to cross into other books fighting other Marvel heroes including the Hulk and the Avengers. His powers are pretty much like you would think based on his name -- he can absorb the attributes and properties of anything he touches. So he might become as hard as steel after touching a steel girder or he might become as shifting as sand after touching a pile of sand. In the comics, however, the Absorbing Man was a former wrestler named "Crusher" Creel and he had no connection really to Bruce Banner or the Hulk. That the character's attributes are just kind of merged into the David Banner character last minute seems a waste of a perfectly good villain and, again, a needless complication. The Hulk has a number of different, excellent villains of his own and any one of them could have been used here instead of this mish-mash of villainy and psychosis.

Looking at the more technical aspects of the film -- it's true that one difficulty that has always stood in the way of the character was finding a way to realistically bring the Hulk to life. The TV series used a body builder in green body paint and a bad shaggy wig but there was always something lacking in that. By 2003 CGI had advanced to the point where the filmmakers thought a good computer generated version of the Hulk would be possible to incorporate into the film. Eeehhh... not quite. In the darker scenes it works but in scenes set in bright daylight the CGI has just not aged well. The Hulk figure looks cartoony at worst and like a video game character at best.

The acting performances, though, are all around good. Relative unknown then Eric Bana is, perhaps a bit *too* low key as his Bruce Banner but there is also a kind of innocence to his performance -- a man who is slowly having the world he thought he knew ripped apart around him and he doesn't really understand how or why. There is also something genuine feeling with the emotions he conveys in his scenes with Jennifer Connelly's Betty Ross.

And speaking of Jennifer Connelly her character actually has a nice little arc -- which is sadly something that the female characters in films like these rarely get. She's a bit witchy a borderline snarky when we first meet her but as she becomes more deeply involved in events and as she comes to learn more about Bruce than even he knows himself she begins to peel back her own layers as she tries to help him uncover his hidden past. Her performance is understated which is, in one way, great but in another way yet another understated link in a whole understated chain of a film where understatement and comic book characters don't really get along too well.

The highlight here is Sam Elliot who seems pretty much incapable of turning in a bad performance. He doesn't allow his character of General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross to remain one-note. When he first appears we are prepared to dislike him as a hard-nosed, inflexible military man but as the film goes on we see him capable of compassion and understanding but caught up in something unexpected and honestly believing that, while Bruce Banner may be innocent and harmless, the Hulk is a dangerous threat and having to make the decision to be willing to end the life of an innocent in order to stop the threat.

Nick Nolte as David Banner is actually the weak point of the story. In a film full of good performances Nolte seems like a ham by comparison. As I mentioned before, he seems to actively play the character as trying to be obtrusive and obvious. He might as well have a flashing neon light over his head from his very first scene saying "Villain, Villain, Villain." And because of his performance in scenes where we're supposed to be drawn to feel sympathy for him we end up feeling nothing.

In the final equation....

2003's Hulk is worth a watch -- particularly if you aren't too familiar with the character. If you remember the TV series, though, and are expecting that then put that idea right out of your head.

Also, if you're expecting a wham-bang big action flick then this is NOT going to be the movie for you either.

If, however, you're interested in a beautifully and creatively filmed drama about complex interpersonal relationships then give this a try. It is a little slow in places shows that the comic book movie can be more than just big explosions and trope filled plots. The problem is that, as a Hulk film, it could have used just a bit more action and some better villains. Still, it's worth a watch.

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