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Hulk, written by John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus from the story by James Schamus and the original comic book by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, directed by Ang Lee, 2003, 140 min.

Hulk is the latest in the current trend of well-financed movie adaptations of famous comic book franchises. Last yearís box-office breakout hit Spider-Man has two sequels in the works, not surprisingly, and this yearís sequel, X2: X-Men United, was a unexpectedly decent movie. Weíve also seen Daredevil earlier this year and the upcoming League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a whole slate of other comic book movies in development. I wonít say much about the well-known way in which Hollywood goes through cycles of enthusiasm that almost always have dismal results. This particular trend, though, has been breaking a few rules: the comic book adaptations of late have been abnormally diverse and interesting, especially considering how much money has been thrown at them. Big budgets have become a sign of dread to me, with a coincident lack of individuality and quirky moments. But, within the parameters of comic book stories (by which I mean superhero stories, not alternative fare like Ghost World, an excellent movie), we have had everything from the bright colours and cheery adolescents of Spider-Man to the angst-ridden ensemble of X2. Now with Hulk, Ang Lee gives us an extremely odd mix of military hardware, mad scientists, things getting smashed, survivorís guilt, broken parent-child relationships, genetic experiments, mutant poodles, psychological trauma, and one very angry, very big, very green muscle-bound monster/human known as the Hulk. Iím not entirely sure that Hulk works; itís often more a movie to be admired in retrospect than to be enjoyed while watching. But itís a valiant effort, and in many ways, a refutation of almost everything that a big summer movie is supposed to stand for.

Our story begins with some revisions to what I vaguely understand to be Hulk mythology. In this movie version, David Banner is a military scientist, doing research on various secret things. In the absence of an understanding superior -- and when has there been such a thing in scenarios like this? -- Banner has to do experiments on himself. Later, his wife gets pregnant, and Bruce Banner is born to be different than everyone else. After a family tragedy that he canít remember, Bruce is adopted, grows up, and becomes a scientist in his own right. He works in a lab with another scientist named Betty Ross, the daughter of the military superior who squelched David Bannerís dangerous experiments. Bruce and Betty were an item or almost an item, but she found him to be emotionally distant. Their current project is self-healing nanomeds, somehow tied in with or triggered by gamma radiation. During a mechanical malfunction, Bruce gets dosed with fatal levels of radiation, but he survives, and in fact feels much better than before. By this point in the movie, about an hour in, we know that things are only going to go downhill for Bruce and his inward-focused psyche. Sure enough, soon he is transforming into a gargantuan 3-metre tall monstrosity whenever he gets angry, and the myopic military canít seem to resist making him mad. It also turns out that his father was not killed all those years ago; he has survived, but with not much sanity in the bargain. With all these goads, and a bit of an addiction to the rush of power, itís no wonder that Bruce soon is spending quite a lot of time being green.

Ang Leeís Hulk tries to spend a major amount of its running time on character development. A valuable goal, and one that worked well in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This time around, Lee isnít quite so successful. I was never convinced about the depths of these characters in the same way as the main three in Crouching Tiger, or even Spider-Man, to go back to comic book references. Hulk is filled with actors who try and fail to convince us that their stock characters have profound meaning or diversity about them.

The metaphor of the rage deep inside manifesting itself as the Hulk is a straightforward yet somehow still sophisticated one. The movie shows us how this presents real problems for Bruce Banner, not vague consequences. Destroyed relationships are just as pressing as smashed tanks in this particular universe, and we feel the weight of this all the way along. I just wish that the people around the Hulk were worthy of this story.

Much has been made of that fact that the Hulk, when he takes over from Bruce Banner, is completely computer generated. Iím not in the camp of those who complain about the CGI Hulk, more so ambivalent or indifferent. The problem with eye candy in a summer blockbuster is that it takes more and more to impress, and after a certain point, it doesnít seem to matter at all. Jaded, yes, but perhaps the growing verisimilitude of CGI characters will throw the emphasis back to story and character (and the movie does gesture in that direction). The interactions of the computer generated character with reality was always believably done, especially when the Hulk was smashing things. Obviously this is key to a story about an angry giant that likes to demolish the surroundings! The closeups of the Hulk were also mostly credible, but I was never sucked into empathy for him. Other special effects in the movie are also generally competent. The editing of the movie becomes its own star, with some complex editing techniques including everything from split screens, wipes, moving frames, resized frames, multiple angles of the same scene in split screens, and often amazing reveal and reaction shots to spice up straightforward scenes. Itís one of the few instances where such showy post-production work has actually convinced me of its necessity.

Hulk is an odd mix of mostly incompatible elements. Ang Lee gives the task his best effort, and if Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk are the evidence of his ability to continue his artistic ambitions on a larger scale than the dramas he was originally known for, then he will be a director to watch for many years to come.

Last modified: July 2, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (

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