Incredible Hulk, The (1977)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/18/05 17:32:31

"Surprise: it holds up better than you think."
3 stars (Just Average)

When most people think of the 1970s TV series “The Incredible Hulk,” they think of cheesy dialogue, cheesier acting, and a green Lou Ferrigno flexing his muscles in slow motion, which is even cheesier still. What’s often overlooked in our memories is that the show has its origins a pretty damn good TV movie, one that may be cheesy, but it’s also quite smart.

The 1977 telepic “The Incredible Hulk” was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, a veteran of such network fare as “The Bionic Woman.” Here, he greatly alters the Hulk backstory (even changing Bruce Banner’s name to David, because, and I swear I’m not making this up, the ABC execs at the time thought the name Bruce sounded “too gay”), adds in a few monster movie ideas, and comes away with a sharp mad scientist drama with enough raw human emotion to make us take it seriously.

For the movie, David Banner (Bill Bixby) is researching what causes certain individuals to have rare bursts of extreme strength. Along with fellow scientist Elaina Marks (Susan Sullivan), he interviews and studies such subjects as Mrs. Maier (Susan Batson), a woman who managed to lift a burning car in order to save her son who was trapped underneath. How could this small woman manage a feat so impressive, and why only then?

It turns out David has another motive. He, too, was in a car accident, which took the life of his wife (or girlfriend - that fact remains slightly unclear). Unlike Mrs. Maier and other patients, David was unable to even budge the vehicle. He’s become obsessed in trying to figure out why he couldn’t do what others had done.

The research reveals a few connections - emotional stress, a key similarity in DNA - and then David stumbles across a link involving bursts of gamma radiation. Doing a little experimenting on himself one night, he exposes himself to some of those gamma rays, unaware that the massive dose he’s taken has now created a nasty side effect. Whenever he gets good and angry, he transforms into a growling green giant (Ferrigno), a beast of unchecked rage, capable of mass destruction.

In both the Marvel comic and the movie, the character stands as a new twist on the Jekyll and Hyde formula; more than just a split personality or a body transformation story, “Hulk” is an allegory for out-of-control temper. It’s anger that brings the Hulk to life, and even the mild-mannered David Banner is capable of such fits of anger; the Hulk, then, is anger personified. (This theme is brought home by the film’s silly, pretentious, yet accurate opening quote: “Within each of us, ofttimes, there dwells a mighty and raging fury.” The quote is credited to nobody, written to sound “old” and “serious,” but it gets the point across nonetheless.)

The main plot is nothing beyond a typical origin tale - after becoming the Hulk, David asks Elaina to help him find a cure; meanwhile, a nosy tabloid reporter (Jack Colvin) realizes the two are up to something print-worthy. But while the plot is quite basic, the screenplay is sprinkled with moments of brilliance.

Take, for instance, the scene where David locks himself away in a seemingly inescapable part of the lab. Elaina can’t quite see what’s going on, and that’s when the Hulk’s arm tears through the window. It’s a highly effective monster moment, with Elaina struggling to remain helpful to David while also fearing for her life as this beast tries to break free.

There’s another bit that smartly references James Whale’s “Frankenstein,” with the Hulk, crashing through the woods, finds a little girl beside a pond. As with the other giant creature, the Hulk means well, but causes trouble anyway. But unlike “Frankenstein,” “Hulk” finds the Jade Giant managing to help after all, proving that even when in Hulk form, there’s enough of David’s humanity left to make Hulk something of a hero when need be.

The final bit of greatness comes at the end (don’t worry, I won’t spoil the plot), where things end on a down note and our hero walks off to that song. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Hulk,” you know the song; it’s the slow “David walks away” number played by a solo piano. Here, it creates a haunting finale and the perfect transition from TV movie to TV series.

Of course, you don’t have to see any of the TV episodes that follow in order to enjoy the “Hulk” movie, which works just fine as a stand-alone work. It’s a great bit of 70s entertainment and a nice little monster movie with heart.

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