Review: The Hulk

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )
Grade: A-

After spending years in development purgatory and watching fellow Marvel comic book heroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Daredevil get the big screen treatment, The Hulk finally has a movie to call its own. And what a splendid affair it is! The Ang Lee directed picture is beautiful in both story and visually. Having never been a reader of comic books, I cannot tell you which film adaptation is the most devoted to its origins in print, or even if The Hulk specifically is faithful at all; I can say that The Hulk is the best comic-book inspired movie since 1989 and the original Batman.

Besides being fifteen feet tall and green, the biggest difference between The Hulk and some of his other comic book brethren is that Hulk is not a superhero. Instead, Hulk is the alter-ego of Dr. Bruce Banner, a Jekyll-like monster than manifests itself whenever Banner’s rage consumes in. Some of us smash a pillow when we are angry, Dr. Bruce Banner gets to transform into a being that smashes military tanks like toys. This is not a “responsibility” like Peter Parker’s spider sense, but rather a curse that plagues the shy Bruce Banner. As with any first film in a potential series, the first saga must set up the origins and foundation for the characters. To do this, director Ang Lee has chosen a script that explores Bruce Banner’s mysterious childhood and father.

The film opens with a series of animal testing shots, that ironically foreshadow the prologue to come. The story begins in the 1970’s, on a secluded military base somewhere in the desert. David Banner is a scientist for the military, and has been working on a mysterious serum, the effects of which are detailed in the opening credits. When the military declines to allow Banner to experiment this “potion” if you will, on humans, David uses himself as a guinea pig. When David and his wife Edith have an unexpected baby, David can only watch helplessly as his son begins to show signs of what his future lay ahead. Jump forward thirty-five years, and enter Bruce Krenzler. Bruce is a shy, albeit, brilliant scientist who hardly remembers his real parents, or the day in which he became an orphan. While working the lab with his recent ex, Betty, Bruce is accidentally shot with a fatal dose of gamma rays. To everyone’s surprise, nothing happens to Bruce at all, in fact the gamma rays seemed to have done more good than harm. If only that was the case...

While in the hospital, Bruce is contacted a man who claims to be his real father. The appearance of this man claiming to be is father, along with the scientific conundrum that surrounds his survival, Bruce begins to get angry. The hidden genetic anomaly that was passed on the Bruce at birth, combined with the massive dose of gamma rays has caused Bruce to release his anger in a very unusual way, as a green monster. As both the Hulk and “human” self, Bruce must battle demons inside and out including General Ross, Betty’s father and solve the mystery of his father and the day that separated them for thirty-five years.

The themes explored in The Hulk are quite more mature than any of Marvel’s comics, or most any comics. Power, freedom, solidarity, uniqueness and repressed rage are all themes of The Hulk in the comic book series, television show during the 1970’s, and now in the film These serious underpinnings have the potential for a highly more dramatic, and highly more engaging picture than any of the superficial themes explored in Spider-Man, for example. Thanks to Ang Lee’s loving direction, the movie is able to take on this mature feeling which in turn gives a more complete movie.

The Hulk is able to find the perfect balance between comic book throwback and serious dramatic picture. There are equal shares well developed characters (Bruce Banner, David Banner, and even in a stretch, General Ross), as well as undeveloped characters (Talbot, and Betty Ross). Serious plot lines in the film include the back story behind Bruce Banner’s deformity, as well as the love shared between Betty and Bruce; and cheesier, plot lines include Bruce’s nemesis Talbot, “on and off the court” if you will. Had the equilibrium fluctuated ever so slightly one way or the other, The Hulk could have come off as a cartoon, or as too serious a melodrama but it was able to strike just the right balance for the majority of the movie. I say “for the majority” because the climactic moments of the movie seem rather inconsistent with the overall feel of the rest of the movie.

A famous Muppet by the name of Kermit the Frog once said “its not easy being green.” After The Hulk though, he may just be accused a liar. The visual and special effects teams of The Hulk have done some of the best CGI work the viewing public has ever seen, and made it look effortless. After some sloppy TV ads and trailers which featured a rather sketchy looking Hulk, eagerly anticipating fans winced. Have no fear though, The Hulk looks very real, and might I add, very menacing. The only moments in which the realistic vantage of Hulk begins to tarnish are during prolonged shots in direct daylight. Besides the green monster, another technical aspect of the film was very unique and ingenious. Along with cinematographer Fred Elmes, Ang Lee used the split-screen format to give the audience a feeling as though we were reading a comic book. Used too much, this could have become distracting and an overall turnoff, and used to sparingly, it could have given the impression of an underdeveloped design. Though just like with the plot lines, Lee was skillful enough to find that delicate equilibrium.

With such distinguished actors involved in The Hulk it seemed a guarantee that all the performances would be right on the mark, and not surprisingly, they are. The Hulk features two time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte, Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly and Eric Bana, a little known Australian actor who won the Australian version of the Academy Awards for his performance in 2000’s Chopper. The rage within Bruce Banner is well acted by Bana, who never over-plays his hand. The same cannot be said though for Nolte, as his performance his at times over the top, especially in the final minutes of the movie. Its Jennifer Connelly as the love-interest, trying to get past Bruce’s internalization that’s the performance that shines the brightest. I was never impressed by her Oscar-winning role in A Beautiful Mind, but after The Hulk I am assured that she has the chops to defend that award.

It may sound very, very sad, but one of my favorite things to do is see a movie on opening night (or if possible, even before then). There is something about having your ticket stub have the same date on it as the official movie poster does that is very exciting. As I am sure you have probably guessed by now, I did see The Hulk on opening night. As I was waiting in line for the audience to be let in to the theater, a twenty-something directly in front of me in line who appeared to epitomize your cliched “comic book geek” said to his buddy, “I wonder if this movie is going to be good...” I will probably never see that man again in my life, but on the off-chance I ever do, thanks to Ang Lee and a marvelous (get it? marvelous...oh never mind) cast and crew, I will be able tell him, “It really was good.”

© 2003 Jacob Sproul

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