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There’s only one possible explanation for the confused mishmash that is The Hulk: Ang Lee mistook the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a sort of directorial cloak of invincibility. After bringing the glories of Hong Kong’s “flying kung fu” films to suburban multiplexes, the director must have believed he’d earned enough blockbuster chits to indulge his artsy (but socially conservative) POV while putting the green antihero through his computerized paces.
So though Lee cleverly treats the screen like a comic-book page, toying with internal panels and updating the ’60s split screen with multiple wipes and pop-up windows, he also sets up a tangle of portentous subplots involving scientific hubris, broken families, nuclear weapons, and, um, jellyfish, and treats them all as if they will pay off emotionally somewhere down the line. And this is 40 minutes before Dr. Bruce Banner gets hit with the official Hulkerator.
When the Hulk was introduced as a Marvel Comics character back in 1962, he embodied the spirits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll; the incarnation of the good doctor’s rage, Mr. Hyde; and the great fragile beast of early filmdom, King Kong. The Hulk was the inadvertent product of a scientist’s unchecked ego and the innocent victim of conformist society’s fear of animal urges. Target audiences being of paramount importance then as now, the comic and its ’70s TV version tweaked the idea of emotions uncontrollable by their purported masters and threatening to the status quo as metaphors for male puberty. Tidy and apt, the franchise glowed under the warm empathy of its fans. (Tellingly, the onlywell, certainly the kindestlaughter at the press screening I attended came during a glimpse of TV’s Hulk, Lou Ferrigno, in a cameo as a security guard.)
But Sam Raimi worked that conceit to its limit with last summer’s Spider-Man, leaving Lee to cobble together a new meaning for his main character. With the help of James Schamus’ story and Schamus, Michael France, and John Turman’s screenplay, the director went with what he knows: the failure of the ’60s. Like The Ice Storm, The Hulk indicts parents for poisoning and killing their children while pursuing a selfish, misguided path of self-exploration.
Young David Banner (Paul Kersey), a scientist at a desert government facility that may or may not be Los Alamos, is working on a project to help boost the human immune system. Annoyed by government interference, he begins injecting himself with a dangerous serum he’s developed. After his seraphic wife has a baby, David seems more curious than concerned while watching his son for effects of the mutated Banner DNA. Then something awful happens, memory repression sets in, there’s some old general or other with a daughter somewhere, the teenage Bruce gets a different mother, and years later he’s working at an independent laboratory under his foster family’s name and bioengineering frogs into self-healing machines. Only they tend to explode. (Yes, yes, The Fly. Go rent it and read no more.)
It’s a long, confusing trudge to the point at which we meet the grown Dr. Bruce (Eric Bana), and the film remains confusing for a good while after that. He bickers wanly with a colleague, Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, who grows more beautiful every minute), about how he never showed any emotion while they were dating. (Sí, La Mosca. What did I just say?) He’s menaced by the slick, hostile head of a rival bioengineering company (Josh Lucas, who has lost all of his mojo after Sweet Home Alabama). As for that old general, he’s Dr. Ross’ father as well as the military henchman who shut down David Banner’s lab, and he suspects something. Trudge, trudge, a mysterious new janitor shows up in the grizzled form of Nick Nolte. Then one day, a nerdy assistant catches his sleeve on the wrong lever, and Bruce throws himself in front of the guy to save him, catching a huge zap of frog-exploder but miraculously surviving. (You know, if you want to see a really good movie, I suggest David Cronenberg’s The Fly.)
When Bruce finally Hulks up, his transformation looks like something between childbirth and a very stubborn bowel movement, but as soon as his eyes flash yellow and his clothes are reduced to shredded castaway shorts, Bana goes out for a smoke and a digitally rendered cartoon takes his place. Like all CGI characters in a 3-D setting, the Hulk tends to shift in proportion and move jerkily, and the dead seriousness of the plot grates against the silliness of the monster. It doesn’t help matters that he also looks very much like the complex, compassionate Shrek. Worse, unless Rick Baker was somehow unavailable, it’s a pointless use of technology. The metamorphosis of Bill Bixby to Lou Ferrigno was deliberately comical, but within the realm of possibility. Bixby’s Bruce was a little guy, Ferrigno’s big ol’ Hulk that guy’s rampaging id, and the tie that bound themthat they were both men, in their different waysmade the transformation poignant and scary. But Bana disappears entirely while a patently noncorporeal representation of his anger does his dirty work. There’s probably a message in there somewhere about repressed emotions and the alienating effects of technology, but neither Lee nor I can find it.
If it was scientific hubris that wrought Bruce’s dilemma, it wasn’t his but his father’s. Nolte as the elder Dr. Banner makes the perfect shaggy fall guy for hippie parenting. Science is the new drug, and David trips himself out on newer and finer mutations. He’s bearded and messy, rails against the “religion of civilization” in a sort of freestyle bebop, and has slunk beneath the radar of society and government to live out his demented dream of a new race of serum-shooting superhumans. His relationship with his son culminates in the world’s worst one-act play, in which David and Bruce are spotlit on a small stage surrounded by the scientific implements that connect and separate them, trading acting-class speeches. (At one point, Bruce breaks into heaving sobs; the audience laughs.)
Where description won’t suffice, quibbles will have to do: Lee has cultural views I find distasteful and inaccurate; his own use of technology is just the sort of crutch he presents as unwise (if not disastrous) within the film; and the movie’s level of violence is surprisingly high. The Hulk fights three mutant dogs engineered by Dad and sent to kill Betty with a bone-crushing glee that churns the stomach. Yes, they’re evil and no, they’re hardly even dogs, but still: I would advise against bringing the little ones to watch these creatures get smashed against tree trunks.
The film’s most gaping lacuna, however, is its utter lack of tone. It feels like nothing, has no vision, no humor, no depth of feeling. It has the curious floodlit anonymity of a government office, despite the helicopters and copious use of greenish lighting and Connelly’s infinitely delicate face. (I advised a 17-year-old friend not to see it, saying it looked as if it had been assembled by a committee. She gasped, “You mean it’s like D.C.?”) The worst-case scenario for this antiseptic jumble is that it will be the Godzilla 2000 of 2003. The best is that it will spawn the sequel it promises: Maybe then Lee will put aside the technology he claims to hate and hook his Hulk to those wires with which he works such soaring magic. CP