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Movie Review: Hulk (2003) – A Retrospective
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NeverWanderer   |  
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Week of Geek: The Incredible Hulk

Hulk DVDHulk (2003)
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte
PG-13
Universal Pictures Distribution
Release date: October 28, 2003

Imagine a high concept science fiction story. Imagine heavy psychological drama. Imagine an intensely personal exploration of identity, family, and destiny. Imagine all of these elements wrapped up in an extremely bare-bones, classical-style film. And finally… perhaps most importantly… imagine that that film is not based on a comic book.

When Ang Lee signed on to direct the feature film adaptation of one of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters in 2003, it was only because he saw something special in the material. Something deeper. Something buried beneath years and years of comic mythology and fan expectations. He saw to the heart of the Hulk.

Now, five years later, Hulk is still the most heavily debated comic book film among fans of comics and film alike. The lovers hail it for its cerebral depth and emotional complexity. The haters boo it for its meandering narrative and questionable performances and effects.

“You can’t have a summer blockbuster that takes 42 minutes for the action to start!” was the general consensus among the naysayers, and they were not entirely wrong! The movie was released in June of ‘03, when the summer movie season was just getting started. It featured a character whose entire reputation was built on a very simple concept: He gets angry, he gets big, and he destroys everything in his path. People walked into that theater expecting a Michael Bay-sized action extravaganza and instead they were met with long, contemplative close-ups of desert flowers, flashbacks within flashbacks, and, yes, a 42-minute wait before any of the anticipated destruction began.

That an audience revved up in such a way might have been thrown by this, is not at all unreasonable. If you go to the movies wanting Transformers and you end up getting No Country For Old Men, it doesn’t matter how good the latter was, you’re still disappointed it wasn’t the former. Your expectations kill your ability to just enjoy what’s in front of you.

Let’s take the film out of that context, though. Let’s imagine that the movie was released at a less-onerous time, and wasn’t billed so heavily as an “action adventure.” How might audiences have reacted then? Well, in that scenario, you still have the reputation of the character to contend with. So, as I suggested earlier, let’s eliminate that factor. There was never any comic called The Incredible Hulk. No TV show. No previous knowledge of a frail scientist who turns into an emerald giant when he gets angry.

Let’s strip the experience down to its absolute barest elements. What do we find?

A story about fathers and their children. About two men — one a dedicated soldier, the other a brilliant, yet disturbed scientist — whose rivalry goes on to infect the lives of their offspring in the worst possible way. A very literal translation of the concept of the Sins of the Father, both in a philosophical and psychological sense.

It is also a story about fate. About the way seemingly random events can collide to create a singular, predestined outcome. It explores the question of whether or not things really do happen for a reason, and if so, what that reason might be.

It is a story about the power of science and the awesome responsibility shouldered by those who would wield it.

It is a story about humanity, its strengths and weaknesses, and how the ripples each of us creates can effect those around us.

But, at its core, it is the story of Bruce Banner, a man emotionally scarred by a forgotten past, who has lost probably the most rewarding relationship of his life due to his inability to connect with other people. A man whose inner trauma, when set free, transforms him into a being of rage, and fury, and pain — a being whose very existence is a result of the memories Banner has kept repressed for so long.

This is the story Ang Lee tries to tell us, with as much care and as much detail as humanly possible, and often at the expense of some of the common foundations of modern filmmaking. Chief among them: Pacing.

It’s easy on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, or even sixth viewing to watch just the opening act of the movie and ask yourself, “Why?” Why focus for so long on the childhood of Bruce Banner? Why even bother with such an elaborate backstory when they could have easily eliminated it and simplified the film’s focus down to Bruce’s transformation into the Hulk?

The answer is simple: Because that is not the story Ang Lee wanted to tell. He was more interested in exploring the implications of the character, than in just translating his superficial exploits to the screen.

But, this is more than just a case of a director sacrificing his movie so he could indulge himself. It becomes apparent, after paying close enough attention, that Lee doesn’t waste a single frame in this movie. In fact, it’s evident in the editing of certain scenes that he tries to make extraneous moments move as quickly as possible. He will splice together three different frames, all showing the same activity from three different angles, and at three different points in its progression. This not only creates a nifty visual effect, it also shows an entire moment distilled into its essential elements — sort of like a comic book page. It makes the unimportant stuff move that much faster, so that we can get to what is important.

So, why, then, does Lee take us so painstakingly through such inconsequential moments as young Bruce playing with those two stuffed animals, or adult Bruce’s nightly routine of tending to his plants and the colorful fungus that grows on them?

All of it makes up the building blocks of the story he’s trying to tell. Except, unlike almost all modern films, which favor plot and speed and action above all else, here, Lee is taking the time to set up the characters. He’s showing us the formative details in young Bruce’s life that turn him into the man — and the monster — he is to become. No stone is left unturned. No minor character quirk unexplained. To many, this is a sign of bad filmmaking, of overindulgence.

But is it?

Is it really so different from the films of an earlier time? When filmmakers were still experimenting, trying to hone the moviegoing experience into something uniquely expressive?

The structure of this movie flies in the face of many of the most widely accepted filmmaking conventions established over the years, but I have to ask, is that really a bad thing?

Are these conventions not just one way of doing it? One approach that has worked so well for so long that audiences and creators alike have grown complacent in the familiarity of it?

Is there not, in fact, more than one way to skin a cat?

(am I getting too out there for you?)

My point is this.

For all its flaws, I’ve found that the more I think about Hulk, the less flawed it begins to seem, and the more innovative it becomes.

Sure, there are other problems with the movie. A few of the actors turn in performances that can seem heavy-handed at times. Some of the dialogue is a bit hard to take, coming off either as purely expository, or taking five words to say something when only two are needed, or staying purposefully, unnaturally vague in order to heighten the drama. A combination of all of these factors sometimes pushes the movie into the territory of melodrama, which, in itself, is a debatable quality.

However, for every scene of over-acting, or awkward dialogue, there are at least twice as many in which the performances and the interactions draw me in completely. Where the passion with which an actor delivers a line, or even a look, will give me shivers. For example, the scene in which Betty and her father, General Ross, argue over the fate of the captive Bruce, is one of my absolute favorite scenes from any movie, ever, because of not only the strength of the dialogue and the emotion of the scene, but the caliber of the two actors playing it. Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliot are two of the best things to ever happen to a comic movie, and their presence will be sorely missed in the new Incredible Hulk, which hit theaters today.

Another complaint people had with the first movie is the CGI creation of the Hulk himself. This… is something I will not go too heavily into here. I’m already pushing four pages of review, and I could probably spend at least one more ranting about the mentality of modern movie audiences and the ease with which they dismiss the amazing work and skill that goes into creating such an elaborate animated character, just because “he looks too green.”

Instead, I’m just going to say that, when I went into this movie, no one was more hopeful or skeptical about the Hulk effects than I was. We’re talking about a character that has carried me from my early, early childhood. The first fear I ever had to face, and after that, my first love, as a television show and as a comic book. At my most subjective and geeky level, yes, I would have been royally pissed if this movie came out and my raging green behemoth looked like one of the monsters from the Dungeons & Dragons movie. But he didn’t. The miracle workers at Industrial Light & Magic delivered a living, breathing, tangible creature, whose every nuance made me believe that my childhood hero was alive and well and beating up tanks somewhere in the south-west. The Hulk was real, and it felt like a love letter directly to me.

Were the effects flawless throughout? No. During Bruce’s second transformation, the Hulk doesn’t blend well enough into his surroundings, and both the dog fight and final confrontation were too dim to make out very well in the theaters (though this is a problem I didn’t have with the DVD). Even when the lighting or compositing were off, though, the texturing and the animation were still spot-on. To this day, I still look into the eyes of ILM’s Hulk, and I believe.

Now… for everything that I have touched upon so far, I assure you, I’ve only grazed the surface. There is so, so much more that I could say. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering this movie, trying to figure out why I enjoyed it so much, despite its apparent flaws. Trying to dissect other people’s criticisms of it and figure out which of them I agreed with, and which of them I didn’t, and why. Trying to separate my inner geek, who can enjoy even the worst comic-to-film adaptation on some level, from my inner critic, who must at all times stay objective and analytical, and never, ever, surrender to the lazy simplicity of “Loved it!” or “Sucks!”

I’ve spent so much time defending this movie that it’s even become a running gag among my friends! Sure, I may SAY that a particular movie is really good, but come on… I liked Hulk.

(I can guarantee you they’ll be getting a link to this article when it’s published.)

In all of the effort to defend the movie, it can be surprisingly easy to forget to talk about the things it gets flawlessly right. The sweeping score by Danny Elfman, which could very well be the best work of his career (and which I’ve been listening to on repeat while writing this). The beautiful cinematography and innovative use of split and spliced screen segues, which add new dimension to the way a story can be told. I’ve already mentioned the genius casting of Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliot, but add to that the surprising turn from then relative newcomer Eric Bana, and a pitch perfect performance from Nick Nolte, whose every subtle twitch hints at the roaring lunatic he reveals himself to be in the end. (Some have called his an unbalanced performance, but I must disagree. The character is unbalanced. His performance is just damn good acting.)

As I said, I could easily spend another few pages talking about this movie. Explaining the intentions behind every drawn-out detail, or the meaning behind every confusing sequence (I haven’t even touched on the ending…), but, believe it or not, I am trying to be concise here. And in the end, it’s really up to each of you how deeply you’re willing to look into it. Because it is not a typical movie. It asks more from its audience than to just sit and enjoy. It asks that you forget that it is based on a comic book, and instead view it, first and foremost, as a story about people.

If someone should find him or herself willing to give the movie another shot, my only advice would be this: Go into it with no preconceived notions, of the subject matter OR the medium. Open yourself up to what the movie is trying to show you.

From there, whether you like it or not is completely up to you. But I think it’s important to see things for what they are, and contrary to popular belief, this movie is NOT the disaster everyone has been so eager to label it as. It may be flawed, it may be unusual, but if you have the willingness, you could also discover something truly profound…

A comic book movie that tries — maybe a little too hard — to be something more. And I’ll take that over a comic book movie that doesn’t try hard enough, any day.

I give Ang Lee’s Hulk an A-.

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