A story about a nice guy who turns as big, bad and green as King Kong on a bender, "Hulk" is based on the character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who launched their monster around the time that Kennedy and Khrushchev were set to launch their missiles. Directed by Ang Lee, the film stars Eric Bana as the Hulk's human alter ego and Nick Nolte as an Oedipal figure by way of Hubert Selby Jr., which helps explain its ambitions as well as the eccentric fact that the scariest thing in this likable if tame monster movie is Nolte's hair.
Like all Jekyll-Hyde stories, "Hulk" is essentially about the defining dualities that make us human — nature versus nurture, freewill versus repression, child versus parent, paper versus plastic — and that sometimes bring out the monster in us. But unlike in the original comic book, the defining battle here isn't waged between a pencil-neck scientist and his rampaging twin (or Soviet spies and good guys in lab coats), but between Stan Lee and Sigmund Freud. In one corner there's Lee, the Marvel Comics genius and World War II veteran who translated postwar existentialism into multiple-panel vernacular. In the other corner: Herr Doktor, paterfamilias of the ego, id and superego, and now often dismissed as hopelessly old-world hypothetical in our new DNA-driven world.
As conceived by Ang Lee's longtime producer, James Schamus (with co-writers John Turman and Michael France), Stan Lee and Kirby's 1962 creation has been brought up to modern speed, notably with a personal history that would make Oprah and Sophocles weep. Adopted as a young child, scientist Bruce Banner (Bana) has no memory of his earliest years. Now hard at work in a genetic engineering lab in Berkeley, Bruce comes across as a good guy partial to dressing in earth tones, and, like so many men, he has a hard time expressing emotion. Being bottled up has cost Bruce an intimate relationship with his lab partner, research babe Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), and while he doesn't seem broken up about the affair, in a strange twist, she's racked by nightmares.
The story opens with an extended prologue involving reams of scientific mumbo jumbo and radiant images of swarming cell life. In the mid-1960s, Bruce's father, David (Paul Kersey in the flashback, Nolte the rest of the time), worked for the military doing exceedingly vile things to rhesus monkeys and various coldblooded critters. Obsessed with manipulating the human immune system, David begins a round of self-experimentation that brings about alarming physiological changes ("hints of genetic mutation") which he subsequently passes onto his son. The evil seeds of David's recklessness lie dormant in the younger Banner until a lab accident doses Bruce with gamma rays. Even then, it isn't until Bruce loses his temper — triggering a change in body chemistry — that the combination of genetic engineering and scientific hubris liberates his demon.
Monstrously large, the comic-book Hulk was a descendant of the creature played by Boris Karloff in James Whale's "Frankenstein," newly pumped up for the atomic age. The Jekyll-Hyde dualism of Dr. Robert Bruce Banner — originally a nuclear scientist — and his monster within was a brilliant distillation of the split between the rational and irrational, protector and destroyer. Mostly, though, the Hulk was essential Marvel Comics — cool incarnate and, like Spider-Man, proof that when push came to schoolyard shove, the nerds would have their sweet revenge. For if nothing else, even with that acid Kool-Aid green skin color and angry thatch of hair, alternately smooth as a schoolboy's fringe and wild as an electric-shock halo, the Hulk was never less than recognizably human — one of us.
In the film, the Hulk's emerald flesh remains much as it was, but now the musculature beneath the skin curves more gently, more softly, with little of the original's chiseled hard angles and chiaroscuro. Online movie sites have been aflame for months with nasty scuttlebutt about the film's computer-generated imagery, caused in part by Hulk's chintzy appearance in preview trailers. As a humanoid aberration, he is not unpersuasive, but the finished Hulk does look pretty rubbery around the gills, as well as his shoulders, monumental six-pack and thunder thighs. Still, for all the fetishism of the computer-graphic detail, when compared with his flesh-and-blood co-actors, this Hulk is no more believable than the animated Br'er Rabbit walking alongside Uncle Remus in Disney's 1946 "Song of the South."
The monster's monstrosity is even less persuasive. Petulant rather than angry, the movie Hulk manages all the fury of a brooding high school wrestler. Inexplicably, he also looks younger the bigger he grows, which undermines the idea that it's an adult who's shedding his skin and social prohibitions to embrace (willingly or not) his worst self. Nearly devoid of complex physical expression, the digital face can twist into a plastic snarl but has none of the pure animal rage — that shrieking baboon intensity, those spittle-flecked gnashing teeth — that makes the pen-and-ink portrayal so fearsome. Ang Lee pays direct homage to the sentimentalism of monsters like King Kong and Frankenstein, but doesn't tap into the irrational molten core of the best monsters — his Hulk gets unwound, never unbound.
Part of the appeal of the Hulk as a character is the return of the repressed, the concept that we're all either cursed or blessed with an asocial demon that lurks dangerously under the surface. That theme holds terrific appeal for kids who read comic books (and watch movies), but it doesn't quite seize the imagination without a context like the Cold War to give it heft and meaning. The screenwriters attempt to raise the contemporary stakes with a father-son conflict, and although Ang Lee has shown a talent for wringing fine drama from the father-son dynamic, here the Oedipal machinations are a drag. However clever, the film's "Freud for Dummies" subtext seems calculated to tickle the fancies of middle-age movie critics whose closest encounter with comics arrives with the latest issue of the New Yorker.
Bana and Nolte play their parts with the touching sincerity of actors performing great tragedy, while the equally sympathetic Connelly spends a surprising amount of time weeping. But what's missing from their performances and almost every frame is the overblown pleasures of mass art, that quality of fun, fizz and freakiness that makes pop not just an adjective but a verb. Maybe Lee is too nice for the hard sell. There are beautiful set pieces in "Hulk" — the image of a human eye morphing into a detonated bomb is breathtaking — and Lee even dices his mise-en-scène into pieces to replicate the paneled look of comic books. However nifty, his Cubist gambit fails to capture the graphic tension that makes great comic-book art jump off the page and great pop movies jump off the screen with pow, zap and wow!
It isn't until late in the film, in a long sequence in the desert, that the movie finally pops. Here, as the Hulk ricochets from dune to butte like a super-ball, you get a sense of his pleasure in being bigger than life. There's an infectious sense of play in the sequence, as if, finally freed from the strained sobriety of the script, Lee had shaken off the film's lachrymose vibe to indulge in some fun. Still, as the Hulk bounced about in the bright desert light, there was something undeniably, even touchingly, puny about him too. However enormous, there is something diminished about this Hulk. I kept expecting a dog to come along and scoop him up in his mouth — a runaway squeaky toy back where he belonged.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity
Times guidelines: The parent-child drama may be too intense for young children; some violence and male nudity
Eric Bana ... Bruce Banner
Jennifer Connelly ... Betty Ross
Sam Elliott ... Ross
Josh Lucas ... Talbot
Nick Nolte ... David Banner
Universal Pictures presents in association with Marvel Enterprises a Valhalla Motion Pictures/Good Machine production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Ang Lee. Writers John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus. From a story by James Schamus. Producers Gale Anne Hurd, Avi Arad, James Schamus, Larry Franco. Director of photography Frederick Elmes. Production designer Rick Heinrichs. Editor Tim Squyres. Costume designer Marit Allen. Music Danny Elfman. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.
In general release.
"Hulk" puts a Freudian spin on the dualities of human nature, but this monster is a little too mild.
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