Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Recap: "Hulk" Part 1: Ground State

Look, I'm going to warn you. If you're reading this on your phone in the bathroom, or while on break, or under your desk during class, then just go ahead and bookmark this page for later. I'm about to recap the events of the mind-screwiest, most pretentious film to ever star a Marvel character.

This is going to be a long read.

Sit down. Get a cup of tea.

And prepare yourself for levels of artsy-fartsy rarely seen outside an Andy Warhol film.

Allegedly, there's a Hulk somewhere inside this movie, too. But I doubt we'll see him within 3,000 words.
The film opens with the traditional Marvel page turning sequence. In what I have to admit is a nice touch, not only is the logo tinted green, but many of the comic panels are Hulk-related. In fact, a few of them directly reference later events.

That's one point in your favor, movie. Let's see how long it takes me to revoke it.
Of course, this is the point where the film takes a left turn into straight-up WTF territory and pretty much stays there for the rest of the running time. Please bear with me. The only chemical alteration I’m on now is a Mountain Dew’s worth of caffeine. I promise you that I haven’t ingested LSD, peyote, or even the Mary Jane, as the kids these days call it.

I did not cannibalize Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Scout’s honor.

Anyway, I shall now describe what I see. A water droplet falls into the rippling, inky darkness. I honestly don't know what's supposed to be happening already, and not even my direct line to the filmmaker isn't helping. By which I mean I turned on the Director's Commentary in the hopes that he'd sit down and say, "Okay, here's what's this symbolism means."

Actually, I think that's exactly what he does. Except that his explanations make less sense than the crazy visuals I'm about to describe. For example, Ang Lee claims that this water droplet represents the first water droplet of the Big Bang, or some such. Honestly, it's kind of hard to tell if he's being literal, descriptive, metaphorical, or chemically altered.

Suddenly, as if bursting forth from the primordial nothingness of creation, swirling forms of dancing particles emerge. Nebulae, atoms, electrons, galaxies; all are given form. Crackling, glowing, condensing. The colors of the rainbow mix with the haunting strings of Danny Elfman, creating an air of tension from within the deepest parts of the mind as exquisite beauty coalesces into unnerving terror.

…What the heck did I just type?

So, let’s back up. In the year 2000, the first X-Men film began with a narration by Professor Xavier, giving a little spiel on evolution while trippy, DNA-ish visuals accompanied the opening credits. The first Spider-Man film did a similar thing, but with webs. Basically, in the wake of the dual box-office bombs of Batman and Robin and Steel, Marvel films had a tendency to try to look sophisticated and visually impressive with an abstract opening sequence before gradually luring you into the world of tights and flights.

So when Ang Lee decided that he wanted the whole movie to be a pseudointellectual, pseudoscientific, pseudosuperhero story, he needed an abstract opening sequence to match his artistic vision. Hence, this fever dream. I can only imagine that this sequence is one of the greatest things put to film if you’re stoned. But alas. Sometimes, the trip turns bad. A split screen that’s probably meant to illustrate the connection-ful-ness of every living being to a greater whole shows up, and it’s all downhill from here.

I can only imagine this represents the Circle of Life. If the Hulk gets eaten by an antelope, I'll know I was right.
Again, all I can really do at this point is tell you what happens. And what happens is mitosis. Green cells replicate and replicate until our view dives into the DNA itself, where the Hulk himself resides. At least, that’s where the title of the film resides. And because this is a comic book movie, the opening credits have been in a comic booky font. And as weird as this sounds, this is one of the most subtle ways the movie "homages" its roots. Just wait until the editing gets creative.

Geez, I’m barely more than a minute into this two-hour film. At this rate, this Recap will take twice as long to read as it takes to actually watch the movie. As if sensing my plight, the camera zooms out and cuts to the chase. Kind of. Turns out, the DNA belonged to a jellyfish in a tank. But before a soothing British accent can turn this into an episode of Planet Earth, a needle comes right the smeg out of nowhere and stabs the thing, extracting the glowy green juice within. Let the montage of SCIENCE begin!

The glowing juice is examined, and a view of some scientist’s research notes shows us that the green bioluminescence is somehow linked to the jellyfish’s immune system.

We get a glimpse of the (possibly mad?) scientist through the water as he grabs a starfish and… slices right into it. And I’m not showing a picture. Because it’s a real starfish. Oh, sure, you can barely show fake blood of any sort, and Odin forbid you show a breast, but you can stab a real starfish all you like in movies! PG-13! Bring the kids, they’ll love to see Patrick Star bleed! For an encore, let's slice up Squidward and see what makes him tick!

Now, I’ll admit that I couldn’t find information online about how they achieved this particular effect. And a few of you may be wondering why I’m so convinced it’s a real starfish. Simple. I showed it to someone with a degree in Biology and some experience with sea creatures. And once my dad finished escaping the redcoats in Assassin’s Creed IV, he was more than happy to take a look. His verdict was that the jellyfish and starfish were most likely quite real, but already dead. Apparently, there are plenty of ways to obtain preserved sea creatures that died of natural causes. So the filmmakers most likely did not kill animals on screen. That’s fine. However, that still leaves the issue of showing actual dissections onscreen. Mainly because there’s no actual science happening. It would be one thing if this were a documentary, but I’m basically watching someone mutilate the dead bodies of sea creatures purely for "entertainment."

Let me tell you something. "Torture porn" movies like Saw don't really bug me. At the end of the day, I know that I'm just looking at special effects. But this sequence is just nauseating. It's a couple minutes of simulated vivisection that were most likely accomplished by mutilating dead animals. And it's not even necessary. This sequence is drawn out far too much and full of meaningless pseudoscience. So in a weird way, it's the perfect introduction to this movie.
Anyway, the slaughter science continues as the scientist maps some DNA. And I’m going to give credit where it’s due, the way the superimposed credits are visibly integrated into the foreground is pretty nice. There you go, movie. You earned one point, lost it when you mutilated animals, then earned it back. Anyway, we get to see some more of the scientist’s notes, such as the revelation that if you can keep yourself from dying, then you won't die.

I wouldn't be so sure about "immortality." Time Lords are only allowed to regenerate 12 times.
The gist of it is that this scientist is trying to figure out exactly what genes allow these sea creatures to heal and survive. And this is where things get head scratching. I’m going to spoil it for you now. It's only really implied, but the Hulk will have the DNA of all these animals inside of him. The starfish (which can regenerate lost limbs) explains why the Hulk can heal quickly. That’s a bit reliant on DNA working like Legos, but whatever. Comic book science. The sea cucumber is apparently there to explain why the Hulk is bulletproof. It’s because sea cucumbers harden their skin as a defense mechanism. After looking it up, that seems to be true. But you’d think that the Hulk would also be able to do the other thing sea cucumbers are known for. Namely, regurgitating their own innards. Also known as "the Black Mage Defense."

Finally, jellyfishes can theoretically live forever. Seriously, look it up. This movie links the chemicals that trigger the jellyfish’s de-aging process to their green bioluminescence. And as I understand it, this is supposed to explain why the Hulk is green. Except the Hulk isn't bioluminescent. You can tell because he doesn’t glow, which is what the word "bioluminescence" actually means. Hulk’s just got green pigment in his skin.

So close, and yet so far.
And Ang Lee's odd spiel about this guy trying to rediscover the feelings of cells or some such, is just bizarre. And I can tell you right now why this scientist ultimately fails. Cells have feelings like water has memory. That is to say, none. And what do cellular emotions have to do with Wolverine-style healing factors?

Anyway, it’s time to move the animal cruelty from surf to turf. It’s time to experiment on monkeys. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of this simulated cruelty to animals. I’m going to go ahead and skip to when he finally gets a successful result with his genetically modified monkeys.

Yeah, I wish.
Turns out that this scientist is named “Dr. Banner,” and he works for the army under a young man with the last name of Ross. The location is “Desert Base.” The year is 1966. Dr. Banner wants to use his findings to create super-soldiers, but Ross tells him that the president’s science advisors are against any further trials.

Ross: “No human subjects.”

In 1966? That’s rich. In real life, Project MKUltra was still going on at that point. And that project basically boiled down to giving random people LSD and seeing if you could control their minds with the help of torture.

But Dr. Banner does what any comic book scientist worth their NaCl would do. He screws around with his own DNA unsupervised. This apparently results in some vaguely defined hints of his experiments working, but there’s no time for that. His wife has news for him!

Wife: “I’m gonna have a baby.”

And the editing for this is really weird, which only gets worse from here. They’re on opposite sides of the room, but Dr. Banner is superimposed over a shot of her, making it look like they’re standing next to each other and looking past each other like some kind of avant-garde theatre performance.

These two characters are on opposite sides of the room. Space is warped and time is bendable.
I’ll talk more about this movie’s odd editing in a bit, though. For now, let’s transition through an iris to Mrs. Banner giving birth. Pain, waiting, yadda yadda, it’s a boy! But Dr. Banner’s a scientist, first and foremost. While his wife’s busy, he takes away his son’s pacifier. The result is a crying baby, but one with rather green bruises on his legs. We cut to Banner’s research notes on the subject, explaining that the genetic modifications must have been passed on to his son. Then we get a scene of Mrs. Banner smiling at her baby son, and a shot of some lichen for some odd reason. Because why not? Honestly, Ang Lee could insert a two-minute shot of a yak talking backwards, and I wouldn't bat an eye.

Soon enough, it’s Christmas. The Banners are all together for the holidays, just the three of them. Dr. Banner’s son (who finally gets identified as “Bruce”) gets a stuffed dinosaur for Christmas, and he and his dad have some fun making stuffed animals fight while muttering some foreshadowing.

Dr. Banner: “Ooh, you’re big n’ green n’ scary, I’ma run away!”

Subtlety, thy name is… whichever writer put that bit into the script.

Dr. Banner takes a bit of his son’s blood for analysis, and discovers that he must find a cure for his son's vague, undefined condition. For all we know, little Bruce just has a cold and daddy's overreacting. And those leg bruises could just be a sign of RLS. According to Ang Lee, they didn't even try to make the effects of the blood cells in this sequence realistic, just so long as they looked cool. Makes you wonder if they used that same logic when doing the CG render of the Hulk.

Cut to a few years later, and young Bruce Banner has a booboo. He gets a Band-Aid from his mom while the other kid struggles to give his line convincingly.

Kid: “Jack hit ‘im with the stick but. Bruce wouldn’t hit him back. He just. Stood there shaking!”

E for effort, kid. But you're, like, six so I'll forgive you.

Mrs. Banner: “He’s just so… bottled up.”

Because irony, get it? But enough of that, it’s over to Desert Base where Ross confronts Dr. Banner about some samples he found in the lab. Human blood. Apparently, Dr. Banner’s been doing secret human tests for the past few years.

Ross: “It’s government business and you’re off the project!”

He punctuates this statement by wrecking Dr. Banner’s microscope. And so, Dr. Banner has just gone from a mad scientist to an angry scientist. He takes this calmly and rationally. He responds by calmly and rationally rushing over to where they keep the base’s Gamma bomb. For some reason, there’s no security and he has both keys to the nuke. Geez, I thought everyone was paranoid about this sort of thing during the Cold War?

Anyway, he sets the timer for half an hour and rushes home to his wife and son, who are ducking and covering under a table, which means that the nuclear blast will take about a microsecond more time to reach them. Dr. Banner takes his wife into the bedroom, so Bruce goes and plays with his stuffed animals. And there’s an admittedly creepy and surreal split-second moment when his dinosaur’s teeth are suddenly less goofy and more threatening.

But soon, little Bruce starts hearing his mom scream for help. And he looks at the ominous, ominous door, which will become a recurring symbol in this film. Anyway, as the door finally opens, Bruce wakes up.

Bruce Krenzler is a teenager. He lives with his adoptive mother, and he just woke up from a nightmare.

Mrs. Krenzler: “Another nightmare?”
Bruce: “I don’t know… I don’t remember.”

Well, strictly speaking, he shouldn't remember. He wasn't around for more than half the stuff in the intro.

So... did this movie start off with a flashback before transitioning into a dream? Or does Ang Lee want us to buy some gobbledygook about "genetic memory" allowing Bruce to remember things that happened to his dad? Were those memories passed on in Dr. Banner's experimented-upon genes? If I wanted that malarkey, I'd be playing the next mission in Assassin's Creed IV, thank you very much. But as I said earlier, my dad's been pretty addicted to that game lately. So here I am, recapping Hulk for you people instead.

The next day, Bruce is packing for college. Or maybe we're actually watching Kal-El prepare to head for the arctic to build his Fortesss of Solitude, because this kid looks a lot like Clark Kent. But Bruce’s mom has some words for her son before he goes.

Mrs. Krenzler: “There’s something inside you. So special. Some kind of greatness. I’m sure... some day you’re gonna… share it with the whole world.”

Because irony, get it?

I really hope the maize-and-blue sweater means that he's going to the University of Michigan.
Because that would mean that Bruce Banner is a Wolverine.
On transition later, and we see adult Bruce Banner, now played by Eric Bana. He’s in front of the bathroom mirror, shaving his face… but then his eye turns green! Unfortunately, this means less than nothing. He won't be hulking out for a while. Which makes this scene kind of entirely pointless, other than establishing that Bruce is now a clean-shaven adult.

Which, admittedly, provides a contrast to Bruce at the end of the film.
Bruce bikes to his job at the Berkeley Nuclear Technology Institute, where he passes former Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno as well as his creator, Stan Lee, for he likes to walk upon the worlds of his creation before he inflicts his divine will upon them.

“Are you familiar with the Book of Job, Bruce? ‘Cause I got a doozy for you!”
Bruce goes inside and meets up with Harper (played by Kevin Rankin) who starts dissing the fact that Bruce is still wearing his helmet indoors. Mainly, this is to emphasize how dorky and unflattering Bruce's clothes are. This, in turn, was written with the intent to distract from the fact that Eric Bana is actually in amazing shape shape. But no lab coats. That was one of the rules for the costumers. But bike helmets are fine to wear indoors, apparently.

Ermehgerd, berk herlmert.
Harper: “You look like a massive nerd, even around other scientists. Can I just ask? Were you wearing the helmet while she dumped you?”

The “she” in question is Betty Ross, Bruce’s partner in science and ex-girlfriend. Because this film is taking the Tim Story Fantastic Four approach of having the romantic leads be already broken up in order to play with our expectations. Except that this movie came first, so I guess Fantastic Four took this film's approach.

Betty’s right around the corner, and she’s also played by Jennifer Connelly. She wants him to give a presentation to the higher ups regarding their project because he loves talking about this sort of thing. Because, again, just like Fantastic Four, they broke up because the guy in the relationship was more interested in science than in romance. After all, when Bruce talks about their work...

Betty: “…you sound almost… passionate.”

Yep, no veiled jabs at their past relationship there.

Betty: “I’m sorry.”

No, you’re not.

Betty: “That was rude.”

Indeed it was. Between Betty and Harper, this is getting to be a hostile work environment for Bruce.

And she smiles as she says it. No wonder he's got enough rage inside him
Jennifer Connelly is a fine actress, but I don’t get why she’s apparently playing a robot, or possibly a very rude Vulcan. ...So, a Romulan. Another thing I don't understand is why she was actually nominated for a Saturn Award for this nigh-dreamlike performance.

Bruce: “No one expects this to be easy. Working together after being… so close.”
Betty: “We were close?”

Betty: “It’s not your fault, really. Just a byproduct of my inexplicable obsession with emotionally distant men.”
She’ll say the most ridiculously overthought dialogue that tries and fails to be clever in a near constant monotone. Like, almost Philip Seymour Hoffman levels of monotone. And her face rarely matches her words.

If I wanted to give this movie the benefit of the doubt, I’d say that they were trying to create a thematic/symbolic link between Bruce and Betty by giving her character Asperger’s syndrome, which would connect them through difficulties with perception and interaction with the world. It would explain a few of her character traits and add an interesting counterpoint to Bruce’s own mental struggles.

If you really wanted to make a sophisticated Hulk film, that might actually be an interesting way to go about it.

But I refuse to give this movie that much credit. The rest of the thing is awash in comic book goofiness, pseudoscience, and pop psychology, and I don’t think that they could add a detail that clever and not have Ang Lee brag about it in the commentary. Or maybe he did, and I just tuned it out alongside his odd ramblings.

Anyway, the higher ups want results soon, so it’s time for more science. And as this movie’s shown us so far, science involves animals. This time, they’ve got a frog with a gash on its back inside a device called a “Gammasphere” which will zap it well and good with Gamma rays. And apparently, this particular bit of technology is based on a real life piece of equipment known as the ATLAS (Argonne Tandem Linear Accelerator). But even basic Googling reveals that the real life counterpart is made to detect Gamma rays, not create them. Whoops.

As they start up the activation sequence, this is as good a time as any to talk about the movie’s editing. It’s terrible. Basically, Ang Lee wanted this movie to feel like a comic book, so he took a bunch of comic panel techniques and applied them to film.

This way, we can see their computer interface and the side of Harper's head while Betty takes a drink!
It's like watching three super-important scenes at once! Now that's efficient filmmaking.

The activation sequence is an odd bit of editing in particular, because this part of the movie plays out like a cube. On each side of the cube is a part of the sequence, and the cube turns to show each step of the process one by one. It’s actually very distracting.

The movie is filled with stuff like this. Split screens, overlays, and other bits of assorted weirdness that just take you out of the whole movie. Eventually, it all starts blurring together like a fever dream. And I should not be using the phrase “fever dream” more than once to describe a movie.

Either the editing is getting remaining weird, or Bruce just spilled some Pym particles behind Betty's laptop.
Back to the experiment, the frog has a cut on its back. The plan is to put “nanomeds” inside it and activate the healing process with Gamma rays.

Harper: “Safeties all going green….”

Yes. Hulk. We get it.

It seems to work as the Gamma rays activate and heal the frog, but the frog ends up exploding because of some kind of imbalance. No, I’m not showing a picture. You want to see animal cruelty? Then Google a picture of a dog in an ugly Christmas sweater. I mean, it's bad enough that people wear those things.

Later that night, Bruce and Betty drink away their sorrows in the lab. Not even the fact that they’ve invented the world’s first amphibian execution chamber can cheer them up.

Okay, the world's second.
Keeping with the dour mood, Betty starts prying into what Bruce knows about his birth parents.

Bruce: “They’re dead! They died before I can remember anything.”

Or did they/can you? Dun dun dunnnnn!

The next day, on her way to the lab, Betty runs into Major Glenn Talbot (played by Josh Lucas), an old friend working for her dad, General Ross. Now that Glenn’s in charge of all the sciencey stuff on the military base, he’s taking an interest in Betty’s project. As well as Betty.

Glenn: “You’re looking good.”

He charms his way into her office and sweet talks her a bit. Betty responds with her usual subtlety and tact.

Betty: “What do you want?”

He wants in. Why, their experiment could be used to modify human DNA to create regenerating soldiers! Which, if you’ll remember, is why Dr. Banner Sr. was given the boot a few decades back. But that was many years and several changes of presidents ago. Dubya wants him some Captain Americas running around, know what I mean?

Betty declines the offer, and we cut to General Ross himself, played by Sam Elliott. He gets a report from an underling regarding recruiting Betty’s project, and we cut back to Betty’s lab. But this time, it’s late and she’s going home. But she talks to the janitor on her way out.

Betty: “Hey, what happened to Benny? Is he not working the night shift anymore?”
Janitor: “Benny’s dead. I’m the new guy.”

Man, that’s how I should have answered people when I started my night shift job.

Betty's response basically boils down to "Oh. Whatever." Which should tell you a lot about how she treats people she knows. So, I was definitely wrong about Betty. People with Asperger's have difficulty with social norms. Betty Ross simply doesn't care. That just makes her a sociopath.

"Well, it's too much of a hassle to learn your name, so I'll just call you 'Benny.'"
"Actually, my name's...."
"Don't care."
Over with Bruce in the lab, he takes an old picture of himself and Betty out of his desk. In a really odd scene transition, it comes to life like a wizard photo before we cut to his memories of that day at Betty's house. Betty apparently lives in the cabin from To Kill a Mockingbird. That's not a joke, either. It really is the same house.

Anyway, like probably most of his memories of Betty, she’s saying some odd dialogue.

Betty: “It’s these dreams, Doctor. I keep having them. They’re terrible.”

They must be, what with that smile on your face.
She starts talking about her dream/memory (dreamory?). She used to live on a desert base. One day, she was getting ice cream with her dad. But suddenly, some men came up to them. Her dad had to drive away, and she was left all alone. She began to cry. As she looked outside the window, there was a bright green explosion. But an adult Bruce is in her dream. Gently, he takes her, puts her against the wall, and strangles her.

Um... the end!

Seriously, though, what is this, the Cannes Film Festival? This dreamory means nothing in the larger context of the film and only serves to establish that Bruce and Betty grew up on the same military base. Which also means nothing in the larger sense of the film.

Because everyone knows that nuclear explosions don't hurt you unless they actually touch you.
Like tornadoes.
Bruce: “That’s terrible. You know I’d never hurt you.”

We cut back to Bruce in his lab. Thus ends the dream inside a flashback. Both were fairly pointless.

Bruce leaves his lab and finds a poodle in the hallway. He decides not to question this and instead tries to pet the strange dog in exactly the same way you’re not supposed to. This ends with the poodle growling at him as he leaves in the other direction. After he’s gone, the mysterious janitor breaks into his lab and steals a single stray hair of Bruce’s. Bruce bikes home and starts doing what I can only imagine is science of some kind on his laptop. Then he sprays mist on the lichen he keeps in his house. Because… I don’t know. This movie is so full of faux-symbolism that I really don’t have the time or inclination to examine the significance of lichen. I just want to see the Hulk already!

In response to my wishes, the film says “Screw you!” and instead zooms in on the lichen and gets all trippy as we have a fragmented flashback to the opening of the movie. But the excitement is too much for our Bruce, and he wakes up in a cold sweat. Pointless.

For no particular reason, Bruce goes to the window and looks outside, where the janitor and his dogs stare back from the other side of the street. And when Bruce looks back, they’re gone. Pointless.

Back at the janitor’s house, there's finally a point to something as he gets to work doing a homemade DNA test on Bruce’s hair. The result?

Janitor: “Bruce…. My Bruce.”

Finally, a point to something!

That’s right, the creepy janitor is the elder Dr. Banner, now played by Nick Nolte. Although, that was probably obvious to people at the time. He was growing that wild hair for this very movie when his now-infamous mugshot was taken.

People Weekly's sexiest man of 1992, everybody.
The next day, Bruce enters his office. Betty and Glenn are already there. Glenn warmly offers his hand to Bruce, like a proper gentlemen, and Bruce insults him like a massive jerk. Sorry, there was supposed to be a likable protagonist in this movie somewhere, right?

After Betty leaves, Glenn tells Bruce that he doesn’t want to be the bad guy here. The work they’re doing with healing nanobots could revolutionize the battlefield by saving countless soldiers and veterans alike.

Bruce: “We’re doing the basic science. For everyone.”

Yeah! Screw proper funding! Screw saving the lives of soldiers! Screw increased staff! And screw results! Ain’t no higher calling than blowing up frogs!

Glenn leaves, and Bruce goes to the lab to science a bit. After some passive-aggression between him and Betty, Harper causes a malfunction while working on the machine. It starts to activate with him and Bruce inside the main chamber.

This irks me. Not because they did away with the Gamma bomb, but because they did away with Rick Jones, the guy that Bruce Banner sacrificed himself to save. Why didn't they just name this guy "Rick Jones" instead of "Harper"? They serve the exact same purpose in the story. Out of all the changes to the source material, this just seems random. Like changing Flash Thompson into "Greg J. Clark," while still having him be a blonde jock who bullies Peter Parker.

Bruce shoves a gas mask onto Harper as Betty tries to shut down the Gamma radiation, but it’s a no go.

"Maximum"? Come on, Gammasphere, you can get that last .13%!
The Gammasphere prepares to discharge its radiation, so Bruce selflessly leaps between Harper and the Gammasphere, taking the brunt of the Photoshop effects.

Boy, it's a good thing that radiation can't penetrate human flesh in whatever world this movie takes place in.
Otherwise, Harper would still be affected and this sacrifice would be for nothing.
You know, I was actually surprised by this happening. I was getting so wrapped up in the drama that I forgot this was a Hulk movie. It’s okay, though. So did Ang Lee.

So. Thirty minutes and ten seconds into the movie, and we finally have a Gamma incident. The Hulk’s bound to start a-rampaging, right? Find out in Part 2!

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