by Mel Valentin
When word spread among comic-book fans that Ang Lee, fresh off the critically and commercially successful "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," had been tapped to direct the big-screen adaptation of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirbyís "The Incredible Hulk," surprise, shock, doubt, and incredulity were all common reactions. Known for his self-conscious, serious-minded, literate filmmaking style, Lee seemed an odd, idiosyncratic choice to bring Bruce Banner and his green-skinned alter ego to comic-book fans and general moviegoers alike. Unfortunately, those doubts were well founded. Lee delivered a dour, humorless, dysfunctional family/melodrama intermittently punctuated by the appearance of a green-skinned, computer-generated giant (not to mention an abundance of camera and editing tricks) to remind us that weíre watching a comic-book adaptation.After a flashy credit sequence that helps to set the visual style (e.g., wipes, split screens, and dissolves), Lee introduces David Banner (Paul Kersey), a military scientist working genetic mutations and manipulations. He believes that his experiments can and will lead to the ability to regenerate damaged tissue and organs (a revolutionary discovery with possible battlefield applications). In typical (read: nonsensical) ďmad scientistĒ fashion, David decides to use himself as a guinea pig. Cue disastrous consequences. The military eventually ends Davidís experiments, but not before he passes on his genetically manipulated genes to his son, Bruce, and not before an angry confrontation with Bruceís mother leads to her demise.
"An arty, pretentious comic-book adaptation."
Flash forward a decade and a half. Bruce (Paul Kersey) has been adopted by the Krentslers and despite an occasional nightmare or two, leaves home for college to study science. Flash forward another fifteen years and an emotionally scared Bruce (Eric Bana) has managed to become leading scientist for a biomedical research facility, specializing in nanomeds (microscopic medicines triggered by intelligent bots injected into the bloodstream). His inability to express himself emotionally has led to the end of a romantic relationship with another scientist, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). In addition to his emotional and psychological problems, Bruce has to contend with an unscrupulous competitor, Talbot (Josh Lucas), for Bettyís affections and control of the research facility.
Anyone even tangentially familiar with the comic book or the TV series that ran on CBS from 1978-1982 and starred Bill Bixby as David Banner and Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk should know what comes next: an accident involving gamma radiation awakens Bruceís long-dormant powers, transforming him into an eight-foot tall, rage-fuelled, destructive monster. Given the length of the prologue, it also shouldnít come as a surprise that David Banner (Nick Nolte), recently released from federal prison, reenters the picture, hoping to re-establish a father/son relationship with Bruce. David, however, has ulterior motives for his renewed interest in his son. His brusque manner, sub-par social skills, poor hygiene, and a persecution complex spell trouble for Bruce.
Bruce, then, has to contend with internal and external conflicts. Bruce must integrate a lifetime of repression (and repressed memories) into his personality. But his mutant genes donít make that any easier. Bruceís anger inevitably leads to his transformation into the Hulk. Externally, Bruce has to cope with his deranged fatherís unwanted interest, Talbotís interest in Betty, the lab, and later, Talbotís desire to exploit the Hulkís regenerative properties to commercial advantage, and last, General Ross (Sam Elliot), Bettyís over-protective father, who happens to have the full resources of the military at his disposal.
Given Hulkís status as the first film in a potentially lucrative franchise, Lee and his screenwriters had little choice but to make Hulk an origin story, heavy on exposition and backstory for most of Hulkís first hour (the Hulk shows up for the first time around the 45-minute mark), followed by several CGI-heavy set pieces, beginning with the Hulkís destruction of a research lab, followed by a nighttime battle against mutant dogs (itís as ridiculous as it sounds), and an extended set piece after the Hulk escapes from an underground, military facility (the chase crosses a desert and ends in San Francisco). After two nighttime set pieces, the third set piece finally shows the CGI Hulk in full daylight.
Unfortunately, the CGI Hulk varies from passable, especially in the nighttime scenes, to dodgy during the daylight chase scene. The animators seemed incapable of rendering the Hulkís green skin with any consistency. Despite the best hardware and software money could buy, it's obvious that the technology wasnít ready to render a fully realized CGI character and have him interact credibly with other CGI characters and the "real" world. CGI characters have a tendency to appear (and feel) weightless, airless, making their interaction with non-CGI objects or human characters all too easy to spot. To be fair, the Hulkís problems were evident in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (the titular CGI character rarely looks ďrealĒ, and his acrobatic movements tend to circumvent the laws of physics or the bio-mechanics of the human body).On one level, Lee and his screenwriters should be commended for attempting a different, more self-consciously serious approach to the source material. That literary approach, in addition to being reductive (i.e., all of the characterís problems are tied to one specific childhood incident, which, if brought to light, examined, and reintegrated, will lead to a healthy emotional life), also makes for a difficult, slow slog through repetitive dialogue scenes. Sadly, given the "Hulkís" disappointing performance at the box office, Lee and his producers seriously misjudged moviegoers. When audiences hear comic-book adaptation, they expect ĎĒescapistĒ entertainment, full of action, believable (more or less) special effects and humor. Where that leaves a sequel to the "Hulk" is anyoneís guess.
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originally posted: 07/04/05 17:54:13