Friday, March 20, 2015

Review: "Hulk"

Well, we endured the film. But... can we understand it?

Plot/Themes
David Banner screws around with his DNA, has an inhuman son, then kills his wife. His son, Bruce, ends up following in his father's footsteps to achieve human regeneration before getting zapped by his own science device. At this point, the movie basically said...

"You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!"
Of course, the movie was pretty nuts to begin with. But not as nuts as people tend to think.

Hulk is a legendarily incomprehensible film. But truth be told, the plot is actually fairly easy to understand. Is it complex? You bet your toches. But all the pieces of the plot basically fit together. The problem here is Ang Lee. Ang Lee did not set out to make a superhero movie. He set out to make art. As such, there's a lot of allusions and parallels that one could confidently call "artsy-fartsy." And as a Theatre/Literature Major, I feel qualified to make that claim. The reason this movie seems incomprehensible is that it raises a lot of philosophical ideas before proceeding to go nowhere with them. But the audience expects a resolution to these ideas that never comes. Which means that the audience feels like they either missed something or failed to understand something.

Let us assume that this movie has a three-act structure. (I say "assume" because this thing is paced quite oddly.) The first two acts are largely quiet, introspective drama. Act three is where everything gets smashed for almost half an hour. If the movie was an all-out drama, then act three would be where all the character arcs get resolved and where the movie would come to some kind of answer regarding its themes. Or at the very least, raise the question adequately.

But as soon as David Banner finishes his story to Betty and the Hulk smashes his way out of the military base, the time for quiet introspection is over and all the philosophical themes go out the window in favor of smashing tanks and blowing up canyons. It's like watching the first two thirds of The Shawshank Redemption before switching to the last half-hour of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

But there are a lot of themes to speak of before the third act rears its head. The bond between father and son, creator and creation, id, ego, superego, the list goes on and on. Allusions and allegories are everywhere in this film. But I'm not going to be talking about the vast majority of them. For one simple reason.

This film is not deep.

This film is trying to be deep, but it only succeeds in the illusion of depth. For example, a deep film would examine the relationship between Bruce Banner and his father and open questions of obligations between the two. "If the father gives life, is the son obligated to return it?" for example. A deep film would examine Bruce and the Hulk and ask the question of which one is the real person. A deep film would do these things and more. But this film is content to say, "Fathers and sons. You know? Think about it."

Many interesting questions are indeed brought up, but very few of them are actually satisfactorily addressed. For example, does Bruce have an obligation to return life to his father? This movie follows up that question by having a fight scene.

Is Bruce truly David's son? Or is the Hulk? Or would "creation" be a better word? Who knows? This movie doesn't.

This brings me to the most difficult part of evaluating this movie.

How do I evaluate this movie?

Do I treat it like a dramatic character study? Well, no. That gets abandoned before Act 3.

Do I treat it like a mindless summer blockbuster? No can do; not with the first two acts being all serious and junk.

Do I treat it like a regular superhero film? Closer, but no cigar; it bears more similarities to a horror flick than a superhero film.

Do I treat it like a horror flick? Once again, not with all that character drama for most of it.

This leaves me with only two ways to examine this movie.

First, I have to look at it as a straight-up adaptation of the source material. The additional material simply defies my methods of examination.

Second, I have to go with my gut reaction. Simply put, did I enjoy this movie?

Was Hulk a good adaptation?
No.

But don't get me wrong. Many elements from the comics are present. The Hulk-dogs, a reference to a janitor named "Benny," the Gamma Bombs, purple pants, the Hulk's body count of zero, the character dynamics, the fact that Hulk's upper strength limits have potentially have no limits, there's a lot of the source material to be found in the details. It's the broad strokes that this movie struggles with.

First of all, there was no need to eliminate the Gamma Bomb origin. It's a comic book movie, and it's iconic. Strictly speaking, having humanoid aliens is pretty far-fetched, and yet you don't see Man of Steel making the Kryptonians into centipedes, or something. My point is that there are some things that you just don't need to change. No one was going to walk out of Hulk complaining that it was scientifically inaccurate. They knew what they could expect going in.

And yet, for a film that was so intent on explaining every little detail of why and how the Hulk could exist, it just whips out the Absorbing Man as a villain? There's a bit of a difference between saying that genetic manipulation can create a green ogre, and another thing to say that you can give yourself the ability to shapeshift into rocks and energy. Once again, the script flounders as seven different visions were merged together into a script that is at the same time a drastic departure from the source material and lovingly detailed with references to it.

All in all, Hulk fails as an adaptation simply because it takes the characters' names and personalities and tells a completely unrelated story.

What this movie does is take a tragic origin story and deal with it for the entire runtime, much like Iron Man. But unlike that movie, the tragedy in Hulk isn't the driving force of the story that motivates our hero to become super. Instead, it's the story the director wants to tell in lieu of our hero becoming super.

Next, more of a pet peeve of mine, but why did Betty and Bruce have to have grown up on the same military base? I mean, kids growing up in the same place who reunite improbably years later after forgetting most of what happened as they grew up. What is this, Final Fantasy VIII?

Finally, who was the main villain? General Ross? David Banner? Both of them were powerful antagonists in their own right, but who was the main villain? You could argue in favor of Ross, saying that he was the larger threat in terms of resources and determination, but David was the only "super" villain to be found and had more of a direct connection with the hero. That's what happens when a few dozen people cobble together a script based on about fifty years of stories. With so much to show, most of it goes out of focus.

Did I enjoy Hulk?
Yeah, actually.

There's a lot for people to enjoy.

Maybe you think it raises some interesting questions. I can't argue with that.

Maybe you think it's so-bad-it's-good. Fair enough.

Maybe you get a kick out of the fight scenes. And they really are done well.

Or maybe you genuinely like some of the film's abstract visuals. And I'd have to agree that the opening of this film is beautiful. Right up until they stab a jellyfish.

Is this movie entirely good? Not really, no. But there are a lot of enjoyable bits to this thing. When this movies shines, it shines. When it doesn't... it's like The Room. It's awful, but not aggravatingly so. You just can't help but laugh at some of it. Cough, the editing, cough. I mean, holy crap, I barely covered how fever dreamy the editing is. It's jarring and awkward and off putting in such a way that you can only truly understand by experiencing it.

Characters
Bruce Banner Krenzler

I'm really not sure what Eric Bana was going for. Said everyone who saw the 2009 Star Trek.

But seriously, it's pretty obvious that Eric Bana isn't a Hulk fan. I mean, he's admitted as such. (Though he does like the Bixby/Ferrigno TV series.) I get that the character is supposed to be "bottled up" as the antithesis to the Hulk, but it's done at the expense of character. When Bruce isn't emotionless, he's overemotional. It's a bit jarring, to say the least. To say the most, he alternates between an almost bored monotone and screams of frustration that are always overblown and often funny.

It's all in the eyes. The eyes can do a lot of acting if you know how. If we could see the emotions in Bruce's eyes as his upper lip stays stiff, that'd be one thing. But he just looks bored more often than not. In a film full of people talking calmly and quietly like an art house drama, Eric Bana's performance reigns supreme as Lord Monotone.

The Hulk
The Hulk is almost a nonentity in a movie called Hulk. Honestly, you could remove the Hulk from this movie entirely and a lot of it would still make sense. The Hulk only appears in about a sixth, maybe a fifth, of this movie. Heck, the first time he even bothers to show up is about forty minutes in. And seeing as those scenes are almost pure action, it's fairly pointless to talk about the Hulk's character. So I'll limit it to a simple question.

Is the Hulk a separate personality or just Banner's buried emotions?

Never quite answered. Like all the other questions this film raises. But dang, if he doesn't deliver on the action when he bothers to show up.

Betty Ross
Seriously, though, what was up with Jennifer Connelly's performance? I can't get a bead on her character's motivations, feelings, or thoughts. At several times, she does things that no human would do, either because of ingrained social mores or common freaking sense.

It is therefore my theory that Betty Ross is a robot duplicate named Jocasta built by Ultron designed to destroy the Avengers by manipulating the Hulk's emotions. Unfortunately, thanks to Thanos meddling around with the Reality Stone, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was splintered into many pieces, meaning that the real Betty was brought back into existence for The Incredible Hulk before being written out of reality before The Avengers. This is also why Hulk only sort of matches up to The Incredible Hulk and why there are no mutants in the MCU. Actually, true story, I had a dream where the next Spider-Man movie revealed that the Reality Stone merged the MCU with the Mark Webb films, kind of like a certain Patton Oswalt monologue.

But back on topic, Betty Ross does almost nothing to impact the plot. And the only way she could be acting stranger is if she started playing dress-up and talking about goblins.

Interestingly enough, here's her quote as to why she joined the product.

"He wasn't talking about a glossy fun-filled kids' movie about a green guy running around in tights. He was talking along the lines of tragedy and psychodrama, the green monster of rage, greed, jealousy and fear in all of us."

I'd like to know what script she was reading.

Harper
Because we never see him again after Bruce "saves" him from the Gamma radiation, I like to think that he died. Because why else did we never see him again? Besides the patchwork script, I mean.

David Banner
Nick Nolte is clearly having a ball with his role. It might be hard to understand what he's saying, and his character might be a bit ridiculous, but dang if he isn't fun to watch. He combines the best elements of mad scientists and shady drifters and is just... superb.

Glenn Talbot
With General Ross having sympathetic qualities and David Banner being so lovably nuts, we needed someone to hate. Glenn fits that bill. He's a smug jerk and nothing else. He's almost impossible to review. He's supposed to be hatable and he is. Mission accomplished. It's like reviewing a chair. It's made for sitting. Can you sit in it? Yes? A-plus, moving on.

General Thaddeus Ross
Sam Elliott signed onto this movie without even reading the script. He just wanted to work with Ang Lee. And you know what? He gives a real solid performance. Eric Bana spends the whole thing alternating between no emoting and all of the emoting while Jennifer Connelly spends the whole thing alternating between going for that Oscar and simply not caring. Elliott gives a powerful performance that illustrates the character's inner struggle between being a General and being a father, even going beyond what was already in the script simply through his actions and mannerisms.

The main problem is that the Frankensteinian patchwork script has his character alternate between being an outright villain and being a conflicted antagonist. Add to that the character's relatively scant screen time, and you've got a character that is saved only through Sam Eliott's acting. And the mustache, which he was convinced by Ang Lee to grow. He was a bit reticent at first because the Army is not the biggest fan of facial hair.

I truly wish that General Ross had more screen time. At the very least, it would have given me the chance to stick in a few references to The Big Lebowski. Oh, well. There's always Ghost Rider.

Music
Danny Elfman pays tribute to the scores of classic Hitchcock movies. It's emotional, ethereal, and gives a better performance than many of the actors in this thing.

Visuals
Amazing.

No, really.

With the exception of the Hulk himself as well as the mutated Hulk-dogs, this movie has really good practical effects and cg effects. Especially the effects for David Banner's powers. The absorbing effects in the scene where he gets powers are some of the most amazing things I've ever seen, and his effects in the final battle are no slouch, either. Unfortunately, people only remember the Hulk cgi. Which is terrible. But through no fault of the animators. This movie was released in 2003, one year before Pixar's The Incredibles. This means that these films were producing their cg characters at around the same time. (It takes a lot of time to animate stuff.) The Incredibles was Pixar's first attempt at making a movie about humans because humans are just so darn hard to get right. And even then, the movie was heavily stylized to lessen how creepy cg humans inherently are.

So if Pixar wasn't 100% confident in their ability to animate humans, then you can easily imagine why the Hulk was a visual failure. Strictly speaking, ILM had neither the technology nor the experience to pull it off.  In all honesty, the Hulk should have been a practical effect like Mr. Hyde in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Say what you will about that movie, the Mr. Hyde practical effects were phenomenal. Sure, you'd end up with a Hulk that wasn't twelve feet tall, but it would end up costing less money, being easier to direct, and look much better.

Best Character: The Hulk
When he's smashing stuff, the movie finally feels legitimately enjoyable.

Best Actor: Sam Elliott
My God, but this man put in so much more effort than the role required.

Best Line
Any and all of David Banner's crazed rambling.

Final Verdict
There's a lot of stuff to genuinely enjoy, but even more to laugh at. Get some friends, cheer the destruction, make fun of the editing.

As for the remake/sequel/reboot... I'll be getting there very soon. See you then, when I officially return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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