Friday, June 20, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Hulk

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I felt I couldn’t go to see the new INCREDIBLE HULK movie without taking a look back at its predecessor first. Ang Lee’s HULK was, well, controversial to say the least. Its negative reception was and is kind of dispiriting, because it’s a case of audiences (and comic book fans in particular) punishing ambition. The major criticism of the film was that it had too much psychodrama and character business and not enough of the Hulk actually smashing things, and I can still remember when we used to WANT big summer blockbuster movies to be intelligent and not just string action setpieces together. HULK is, to be sure, slower than the norm, particularly in the first half, but there are definitely over-the-top thrills to be had, and more importantly the pace is in service of a good story. It’s a compelling work about fathers and their children that captures the over-the-top melodrama of the Marvel comics which gave birth to old green-skin, and doesn’t skimp on the wild visuals either.

The plot of the film embellishes the beast’s gamma-soaked origins quite a bit. Bruce Banner (played as an adult by Eric Bana) is the son of an eccentric scientist performing biochemical research for the military, and has apparently inherited some of the weird cellular regenerative properties that dad tested on himself before Brucie was conceived (at least I think that’s how that went.) Bruce was sent to a foster family at an early age after something happened to mom and dad, and doesn’t really notice any genetic abnormalities until, as a scientist working on nano-medicines, gets exposed to a big dose of gamma radiation. Soon after the accident he’s contacted by his father, now played by Nick Nolte in a particularly ragged state (so, casual day), who’s interested in what changes may happen to his son. Bruce spurns his not-really-loving-or-particularly-compassionate father, but soon finds that stress and anger turn him into the Hulk, a giant green monster with limitless strength and no apparent weaknesses. He’s captured by the military, at first for safety reasons, but then becomes the target of scientific experiments by Banner’s unscrupulous rival (Josh Lucas), and this, well it doesn’t make him happy.

The plot is actually not as messy as I make it sound. Lee uses some quick transitions to get us to the present day, going back later to fill in the blanks on Bruce’s troubled childhood. In truth it’s the story of two father and child pairings, the second being Bruce’s co-worker Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) and her father (Sam Elliott), a general. Their relationship is more strained than anything else; her father is also devoted to his work above anything else and she has trouble fitting into his life. It’s ironic that so soon after Fathers’ Day I’m writing a review of a film in which bad fathers play so much of a role. The major conflict at the film’s center is that Bruce is still his father’s son and manipulated by him from a distance. It doesn’t help when dad decides to expose himself to the nano-gamma combo and becomes a literal parasite able to absorb the properties of anything he touches. The metaphorical nature of his and to some extent Bruce’s powers is very comic booky and especially in-tune with the way Marvel in the Sixties did things; folks like Stan Lee (who has a cameo in the film alongside Lou Ferigno) and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, et. al., had a way of matching personalities to powers in a way that helped the characters they created resonate with the public. Here it becomes downright Freudian.

Also in a nod to the comic medium, Lee employs an arsenal of unusual frame-like scene and shot transitions that juxtapose his images spatially as well as sequentially. It creates an effect that’s evocative of comic panels, but also uses the motion of film to good effect. There are a number of dreams and montages in the picture as well, creating a surreal and almost poetic effect; briefly seen, but incredibly memorable, is a shot of jellyfish hanging over a desert landscape like space aliens. For all the psychodrama in this film, Lee isn’t afraid of being unrealistic; the Hulk has his trademark purple shorts and bright green skin, leaps through the air with such distance that he almost seems to fly, and treats tanks, helicopters, and missiles like they’re his toys. Indeed there’s something deliberately childlike about the Hulk’s appearance and behavior in this film, suggesting that this is something that Bruce has buried for a very long time.

To be fair to its critics, I must say that the film is slow and possibly more than it needs to be. It’s a good forty minutes or so before the Hulk makes his first appearance, and that’s deliberately shrouded and dark in a horror-movie-style rampage through a laboratory. Of course, looking at it objectively, I don’t see how a film in which the green monster destroys a lab, three mutant dogs (in a scene much criticized but kind of fun, really), an underground base, tanks, and helicopters, and even rides a jet into the stratosphere, can really be called short on action. The film is deliberately paced but it does give us some genuinely over-the-top scenes of carnage and destruction.

I actually wonder if our minimum standards for what constitutes sufficient action in a movie, especially a superhero movie, haven’t risen over the last decade. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, after the scene wherein Krypton is destroyed, features a lengthy sequence of Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, discovering his heritage, and traveling to the North Pole or nearabouts to build his fortress and meet his birth father. It has to be an hour into the film before he actually dons the costume. Would modern audiences stand for this, or for his failure to punch anyone in the entire film? (Reaction to SUPERMAN RETURNS suggests no.) I sometimes scoff at the idea that our attention spans are dropping, but this gives me pause. Granted, the Hulk is identified with smashing things even more than the average hero, but if slow buildups now aren’t allowed at all we may be in trouble.

The effects for the film are a bit below expectations- it’s hard to make a character like the Hulk realistically in CGI, though the new film seems to be closer to the mark- but I have to say the overall surreal style of the picture makes this less of a problem. Bana is fairly convincing throughout, though Connelly kind of gets lost in the background- she’s a fine actress but somehow she doesn’t make a big impression. Nolte is mostly good, but has a couple of bits near the end where he goes overboard. The climax of this film is particularly disliked, as it’s a bit obtuse as to the literal action, but I think it works thematically, and in a movie like this the thematic comes close to being the literal. That’s a big part of the appeal of superhero comics, we see abstract things like rage and justice and revenge and insanity given form and physically pitted against each other.

This, then, is the ultimate triumph of Ang Lee’s HULK; it’s a film which takes a story of family and abuse and transmission of rage through generations and turns it into the story of a giant green monster destroying things. It’s almost like a PG-13 version of David Cronenberg’s THE BROOD in that sense, and though it’s not for all tastes, viewed with an open mind it’s a bit of a minor classic. I’m enthusiastic about the new HULK movie, I hope it’s even better, and I’ll likely have seen it by the time you read this. But we as audience members should have room for more daring superhero movies that don’t play by all the rules we set for them. Genre should never be a straitjacket, nor should adaptation, and we shouldn’t let our ideas of what things should be make us unable to enjoy things that are quite good as they are.

Based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Story by James Schamus
Screenplay by John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus
Directed by Ang Lee
Grade: A-

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