Worth A Look: 30.51%
Pretty Bad: 15.44%
Total Crap: 25%
13 reviews, 194 user ratings
by Marc Kandel
But itís not five star material either, is it? Four stars? Tough sell. What is wrong with this film? More importantly, what is so right about it that we cannot afford to simply write it off as a superhero film blunder alongside debacles such as ďPunisher, Catwoman and Daredevil,Ē three films nigh unwatchable in their plodding banality, outright stupidity and disingenuous fanboy-baiting?Do you need a synopsis? Bruce Banner. Physician. Scientist. Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths all humans have. Then, an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry. Now whenever Banner becomes angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis takes placeÖ yes Nerdic Legions, that was from memory. And yes, Marc said in his most tired voice, I know in the TV show his first name was David.
"I canít label ambition and execution of this magnitude as failure."
Director Ang Lee utilizes ideas brought forth from the comic over the last two decades, where Bannerís condition stems from repressed memories of his fatherís abuse culminating in his motherís murder, freed through a tangible trigger (radiation- an old Marvel 60ís staple) and given physical form as a being of pure Id, possessing limitless strength, able to vent Bannerís submerged rage and grief without consequence or hesitation, tempered only by the fact that Banner is inherently a decent man. The pacing of this introduction to our protagonist(s) is note perfect, interspersed with the opening credits, and even does the comics one better, ingeniously furthering the mythos of the Hulk by having David Banner experiment on himself in his shortsighted quest to perfect the human species, passing on his genetic instability to his son which enables Bruce to withstand the otherwise fatal dosage of Gamma radiation later in life, which in turn provides the unlimited energy source needed to fuel the Hulkís staggering power.
Leeís beautiful montage of the elder Bannerís experiments (which include Bruceís pitiable, fascinating childhood complete with a kid Iíd have love to have seen as Anakin Skywalker, Cole in ďSixth SenseĒ and a number of other roles peopled with borderline or flat out obnoxious, precocious brats) is perhaps, along with the desertĖto-Frisco fight, the two note perfect scenes of the entire film, and the former contributes an astounding hypothesis- that the Hulk is the ultimate fusion of all defense and survival systems of the hardiest, most capable plant and animal life found on the earth; mostly desert and oceanic environs, so letís hope Hulk doesnít get plunked in the Arctic any time soonÖ or the Bronx.
It's a weighty concept that unfortunately leads to interminable moments of cinematographic navel gazing that grows exceedingly tiresome for ďHulk Smash!íersĒ in the audience impatiently shifting in their seats waiting for Green Beatdown to commence. But this thoughtful examination of what makes this hero tick is clearly not a case of lazy, trite writing or empty spectacle filmmaking; this is a work of care and craft, one that unfortunately thinks itself into corners leaving the story and characters nowhere to go amid fatal narrative confusion, uneven pacing, and strained emotional connections.
I find that there are three principal problems to the film which affect the flow of the story and lead to the most egregious blunders in narrative and character work: The Betty Ross/Bruce Banner relationship being shown post-breakup rather than the first meeting, Bruce Bannerís history jumping from early childhood to adult where he does not even know himself as a ďBannerĒ, and the Hulkís size and invulnerability removing our concern for the characterís well-being (the latter being the most ďComic Book GuyĒ complaint youíll hear from me, and probably the one most other comic fans would take exception to). Most fans were simply bored or annoyed with the infamous ďJellyfishĒ ending, and there is merit to that argument. But if each of these problems is analyzed, one can see their effects echoing through the film making the unsatisfactory nature of the conclusion and the many other errors throughout inevitable.
Eric Bana serves the script loyally to a fault as a sweaty, wan, emotionally distant Bruce, but heís so successful playing a damaged, inexpressive human being (with a startling touch of the sinister), that despite knowing the cause of his trauma, we never really root for the guy as heís presented to us as a little better than a brainy cipher whose adult life isnít terrible, despite the horrific disintegration of his family in early childhood. In fact, heís pretty much unaware that he is Bruce Banner, as he was adopted shortly thereafter by a kind, loving foster family. Since that time, we see that he has risen to a preeminent position as a genius in the field of radiation, he has found acceptance within his peer group, and heís even managed to bang Jennifer Connelly. Let me run that last part by you again- heís had sexual congress with Jennifer Connelly. Me, Iíd be skipping to work.
I would have liked to have seen more moments of Bruceís formative years, as well as full self-knowledge of his legacy making one of his goals to escape his past and better the world in spite of it, rather than simply block it out. The childhood scene where little Bruce simply stares off as his mother tends to an injury inflicted by another child as another playmate alarmingly recounts Bruceís failure to retaliate or even make a sound in the face of pain and humiliation is so wonderful, foreboding, and terribly sad that I wanted more. There is a horrible beauty in its implications; even his adored motherís touch can only reach so far into Bruce. His love and worship of her is tangible, but even in the comfort of her arms his bodyís defenses must not allow him to lose control. If only the movie had maintained this focus.
By having no idea who he truly is or where he comes from, Bruce pretty much has to start from scratch emotionally (along with the entire audience) rather than suffer from the gradual, spiraling build of years of mental pressure that would have resulted in a much more interesting transformation, as if heís been keeping the painful fury and devastation of his fatherís crimes and the loss of his mother consciously at bay all this time, only to fail after years of deliberate mental discipline. It would have certainly been a much more complex obstacle for Betty and Bruce to overcome relationship-wise than simple ďbad-dreamĒ syndrome, or Bruceís comatose pontifications and flashbacks. The amnesia is unnecessary and adds clunky, overlong expository scenes where Bruce ďdiscoversĒ himself in front of an audience who already knows him inside and out and is ready to move on and see him really deal with his anger as the Hulk rather than sit there shivering with sense memory as Betty stares blankly doing math problems in her head to give her a perplexed, concerned expression or David Banner drools and belches genetic theory and matters of lineage while chewing on electric cables and scenery.
A better route using the filmís ďamnesiaĒ time more effectively and keeping the build sustained would have been scenes growing up with Bruce through middle and high school, his awkward mannerisms and intellect distancing him and making him a target of ridicule that he would simply take and take and take, bringing to a peak the explosion of anger and catastrophic, unfocused retribution years later. Further discovery of different emotional and physical needs in college might have shown us the difficulty in forming relationships, and finally meeting Betty, a sharp, strong, yet kind woman that didnít have to be played as a mother figure, but rather an exciting, enticing lure for Bruce to come out of his shell, where Bruce would be in turn, a challenge for Betty, the polar opposite of her gung ho father, but a man of character and complexity nonetheless, which leads us to our next trouble spot, that of Bruce and Betty as a couple portrayed as past their expiration date.
The film pokes through the ashes of a relationship, and it falls flat. The interpersonal drama between Betty and Bruce is told mostly in awkward flashback with little spark or life invested by the actors. Betty is played by Jennifer Connelly almost as introverted, quiet and cautious as Bruce. The idea that Betty represents the kindness and love Bruce had from his mother is overplayed to the point that we can barely see these two as a romantic couple. Sheís the daughter of a tough-as-nails army general- youíd think sheíd have more of a personality than the bland puler Connelly gives us.
Even the more intimate scenes we are privy to are nothing more than foreshadowed contrivances where we see Betty subconsciously recoil from Bruce, sensing the turmoil within him- she does this on a romantic getaway, turning a loving moment into a nasty little psychoanalytic reveal she chooses to bring up during what we are led to believe will be a sexual encounter, ruined by a segue into an extremely disturbing dream Betty shares involving an adult Bruce menacing a child Betty- a clumsy parallel to how the titanic Hulk looms over the petite adult Betty. Frankly this tells us more about Betty than it does about Bruce, lending her a bit of manipulative shrewishness that makes the character rather unappealing. She should probably be throwing the poor guy a bang, but chooses this gentle moment to make him exceedingly uncomfortable and rejected over an intangible neurotic dream. Betty and Anakin Skywalker should get together, or at least start dream diaries- a preferable alternative to genocide and massive property destruction.
Had we seen Bruce finding someone worth opening up for, a challenging, provocative, yet accepting woman, the Gamma accident threatening this burgeoning relationship, coupled with a less cretinous, obvious Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas doing his abilities no justice as a blatant, unconvincing cattle prod for Banner to get his mad on) waiting in the wings for Betty, we might have had more believable, emotionally urgent stakes to play for. If Lucas had given more of the capable character I had seen in Poseidon, I might have been truly concerned for Bruceís chances with Betty, but as a romantic foil, Lucas never once convinces us, or Betty for that matter, that he is an acceptable alternative. The treacherous yet charming Neville Sinclair fared better with Connellyís character in Rocketeer, presenting at the very least, the illusion of a challenge to the heroís affections. No such luck here.
So instead of Bruce having a very stirring reason to want to batter Talbot into paste, or the addition of losing Betty emotionally as well as physically, we merely have a redux of a 70ís Hulk tv show Banner Beating, with no emotion or reason behind it other than making him Hulk out- it's a curious blunder on the part of Lee, who has worked to make genuine emotional choices with all of the other characters, and detailed reasons for every action. Scenes with Talbot ring exceptionally false in contrast, and the deep, rich story we are involved in becomes wholly cartoonish, well before a green giant in purple biker shorts ever makes an appearance.
Add to that a Hulk that becomes so gigantic and invulnerable that the only thing that can give it a fair fight is a beast that canít be punched, and you can see the movie unravel before your eyes.
Hulk is quite impressive: There is weight and presence to him, he is perfectly capable of conveying the requisite emotion, and invested in the context of the film he plays much better than his first public appearance in a 30-second Super Bowl teaser leaving the Pabst and wing glutted audience giggling and dismissive. Lee wisely allows us to get used to the idea of the Hulk first in darkness and shadow before dragging him out into the daylight. But at the height of the filmís action, we have a Hulk 15 feet tall; a massive giant nigh impervious to physical harm, shrugging off depleted uranium slugs and shot-putting tanks. The farther the creature is exaggerated, the harder it becomes to see the humanity within, save for a transcendent moment as, given the briefest respite from military pursuit, his nostrils flare as he gulps vast quantities of desert air, soaring over the endless landscape, exulting in his primal power and hard fought freedom- it's a moment Bruce has certainly earned throughout his hard life, and one I would see explored further in future outings of the character.
I would have preferred a marginally smaller, more vulnerable Hulk as we see in the first transformation, where the rage does not result in such dramatic visual growth spurts so much as increases in strength and durability illustrated by growing viciousness in his attacks. Donít agree with me fans? Letís put it this way: If you reach the physical apex in the middle of the film, itís impossible to build to a climax that doesnít have your gargantuan protagonist wrestling with a giant glowing Portuguese Man oí War. Yes. Itís time to address the Nolte Pudding, that ever so disappointing example of superhero adversaries- a foe that canít be smacked. What does the mightiest mortal on Earth do when he canít simply hit something? Well, now you know. He fucks it to death with his verdant cyclopean wang: ďTAKE IT AAAAAALLL!Ē.
But seriously, itís hardly the smashfest most fans were anticipating, though again I must applaud Lee for his attempt to bring something different to the climactic battle, making it not a contest of bone and sinew but spirit and will, allowing not the Hulk final victory, but Bruce Banner. David Banner loses because he cannot abide the light of his sonís spirit as the gamma fuelled emotion of years of pained memory pour into him, overtaxing his myopic, monomaniacal nature that never accounts for anyoneís individuality or need beyond his own flawed designs and dismissive attitude of humanity. Bruce is the last equation of his original formula- not just coldly fabricated artificial strength and stamina but the spiritual capacity to endure, to embrace, to love, to grieve- itís too much for David- it's a power he never imagined or had the capacity to understand surrounded by his calculations and centrifuges.
Look at the parting shot we have from this battle- not the Hulk roaring over a fallen foe, but a spent, almost peaceful Bruce Banner floating in an amniotic pool of cleansing water and waves of memory- the last being not David Banner the abuser, the murderer, but David Banner the father, gently playing with his son, a smile on his face, loving his child- a pure memory of good things, of the spark of a good man that might have been. What director would dare have a shot like this in a Hulk movie? I cannot call this failure. Did we really want a Michael Bayesque tour of America with Hulk bloodlessly leveling landmarks and monuments as scientists and soldiers race to figure out the solution whilst spitting pithy comments and pop-references? I see a director trying to be so much better than that. Its not the movie people ultimately wanted, but its not without its treasures as well upon closer inspection.
At its core, Hulk is a great revenge of the nerd story, apart from its Jekyll and Hyde origins. The capacity of rage in the physically weak and tormented can yield terrible results (Columbine anyone?). But at the same time there is some powerful catharsis in beating the jocks at their own game. This ideology was the success of the old 70ís series when whatever menacing bouncer, disco bully, leg-breaker, pimp, hillbilly, corrupt restaurant manager, or roid-raged football player of the episode came face to face with a growling green trump card that reduced them to the status of impotent victim. But the realization of physical vengeance by the intellectual was always tempered with Bannerís tremendous compassion, humanism, and bravery, marvelously conveyed by Bill Bixby, a truly underrated actor if there ever was one, lending his Banner such strength of character that even when Ferrigno filled the screen with his formidable greenness, you knew the force of Bixbyís presence would never allow the beast to violate the moral boundaries of the man inside.
Banaís Banner gives us the horror and sadness of his situation, and by filmís end, we finally have the resolve and even the slightest hint of glee at the power he can exercise, but itís a tad too late. Hopefully by next film, not only will we have a more heroic, lively Bruce Banner, but weíll be able to get down to brass tacks and enjoy the villain that can really give the Hulk a physical run for his money, the Hulkís squamous nemesis the Abomination, possessed of the Hulkís prodigious strength, but retaining human intellect as well giving the monster tactical advantages. Of course, by giving the audience more of ďwhat they wantĒ, will the next movie be able to maintain the heartfelt intellect and soul Ang Lee offered us? I donít think so, and therein lies the problem and puzzle of Hulk.
I should take just a moment to also applaud Danny Elfman for his best non-Batman or Edward Scissorhands redux in years. Heís actually taken the time here to write a score that doesnít exactly lend itself to an in depth, track by track analysis, but it does 80% of the job, and certainly stands as one of his more unique achievements, not as easily recognized as much of his repertoire. I realized early on that the subdued, seven descending notes that compromise the main fanfare of the film actually score Banner rather than his alter ego, an auditory descent into the darkness of the soul and the storm within the mind, repeated over and over as though an eruption is imminent yet never achieved. Mixed with somewhat Middle Eastern melodies in the more thoughtful moments of the film, the score is haunting, perhaps not as percussive as it should be for its subject matter (I would love to see what a Basil Poledouris could do with this character), but poignant nonetheless and worth a quick mention.ďHulkĒ tiptoes and dances when it should stomp. But itís such a beautiful dance at timesÖ
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=7638&reviewer=358
originally posted: 10/12/06 03:48:27
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