Ang Lee had a vision. Take The Hulk, that pop-icon slave to rage and make a literate, thoughtful exploration of the human psyche, not just what drives us to rage, but also why there is a little piece inside each of us that is drawn willingly to it. If only he had been able to pull it off. Instead, THE HULK is a muddled bit of effluvia that doesn’t rise to the level of pop psychology. Featuring wooden performances, banal dialogue, and unintentional humor, the whole thing plummets to a denouement featuring Nick Nolte ranting a speech full of sound and fury but, like the film itself, signifying, well, you know.
Screenwriters John Turman, Michael France, and longtime Lee collaborator James Schamus are responsible for this re-telling of the popular Marvel Comics character. Capturing the look of a graphic novel, with split screens and cool wipes from scene to scene, they begin with Bruce Banner, played by the undeniably hunky Eric Bana, living under the name Bruce Krensler. This is the result of an unfortunate incident in his early childhood involving recombinant DNA from jellyfish, among other sources, and a father who made some very poor parenting decisions. All is not well for Bruce. On the professional front, his scientific experiments with nanomeds result in exploding frogs, not curing them. On the personal front, his girlfriend, Betty, the undeniably ravishing Jennifer Connelly, has dumped him for being emotionally unavailable. That will all change, of course, because Bruce runs afoul of gamma rays and before you can say “uh-oh” he’s a big green killing machine with the military after him, not to mention a scruffier than usual Nolte as his dear old dad of a mad scientist looking to finish his experiment.
Unlike other incarnations, this Hulk keeps getting bigger and bigger until that longstanding problem of the super colossal expanding pants that has plagued the story since its inception finally becomes too ridiculous to deal with on any level. I mean, when Bana’s Bruce, a man of slight build, grows to the size of Bunker Hill and then reverts to Bana size, shorts intact and nicely fitting at every stage, all you can do is wonder why the people who photographed Bana and the ones who created the CGI Hulk didn’t used careful angles to maintain the PG-13 rating rather than stretching our credulity even more than those shorts.
Were that that were the only problem with the CGI concept. As rendered by the team at Industrial Light and Magic, this Hulk has the cast of an angry Smurf, of a Michelin Man with an attitude problem. He’s cuddly, in an overly muscular way, rather than terrifying. And then there’s the way he moves, beyond the jerky motion. As the Hulk roams to and fro from the San Francisco Bay Area to a secret military installation in the desert run by Betty’s general father (Sam Elliot), his preferred method of motion is the hop. Really big hops. Hops that cover miles of both ground and altitude all at once. This works on the comic page, because its static. On film, its another story. The thing is, hopping is what bunnies do. Hopping is what kangaroos do. Hopping is cute. The Hulk, as I’ve already mentioned, isn’t supposed to be. Throw in the fact that when he is airborne, he seems very like a large, green helium balloon drifting along. Sure, there’s a thud when he touches down, but it’s perfunctory at best considering the Hulk’s mass, which, combined with his acceleration and the resultant increase in the pounds per square inch his body would exert, should cause him to not just land, but rather to bore into the surface of the Earth with extreme prejudice. Why the CGI people decided to so blithely toss aside the laws of physics when rendering a man mountain, I cannot say.
As for having a mutant poodle on the attack, complete with the classic pom-pom grooming, the less said the better.
There is one truly exquisite moment in THE HULK, an image of an inner life made manifest that is all the more maddening for showing us what might have been. Bruce, having suffered the gamma ray explosion that will doom him, lies half-asleep in his hospital bed. Lurking at the door in shadow is The Hulk, Bruce’s subsumed rage finally freed and waiting to make his move. It’s lovely. Otherwise, the script fails, especially in its ability to offer its fine cast the chance to demonstrate their talents. Bana, so excellent in CHOPPER, is barely allowed to do more than twitch. Connelly, who dazzled and astounded in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, has little to do but look sad and make breakfast for Bruce. They deserve better. Heck, Nolte, Elliot, and Josh Lucas as the corporate weenie deserve better. Most of all, the audience deserves better.