The Hulk is the story of a mild-mannered, dead-serious Eric Bana who turns into a bloated, overgrown Shrek whenever the world pisses him off. Directed by Ang Lee, who gave us the surprisingly graceful and shockingly realistic fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Hulk is a foray into the chunky digital soup that accented previous comic-book hits such as Spiderman, Blade, and X-Men. By combining the choppy action sequences from Blade, the bold silliness of Spiderman, and the serious undertones of X-Men, The Hulk works to be as much like a living comic book as possible. Unfortunately, the truly fun moments are few and far between.
The Hulk focuses on Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), the unlucky son of deranged scientist David Banner (played by the equally deranged Nick Nolte). Thanks to the evil government (which, incidentally, is very very evil), David had to stop his DNA tinkering, but not before he experimented on himself. The mutation passed down from father to son. Flash to the future when a big green monster is produced and is then cruelly pursued by his deranged father, upstart corporate hotshot Talbot (Josh Lucas), and Ross (Sam Eliott), the military father of potential love interest Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly).
The most striking aspect of this film is its visual style-it appears that as comic book movies grow more bankable, most filmmakers grow more confident in the source material. X-Men veered away from bright colorful costumes, and Spiderman only embraced tights and webslinging after repeatedly poking fun at itself. The Hulk, however, not only presents the most cartoonish superhero yet, but also is clearly filmed to resemble a living comic book. The screen is constantly being subdivided into three or more panels to show multiple viewpoints at once (a tactic used more recently by TV's 24), and the camera often rockets forward and backward for visual emphasis. At times, this works very well, enhancing potentially boring segues and building claustrophobic suspense for action scenes. However, during action scenes, it is very confusing, and during normal conversations, it is ridiculous. The effect is completely lost without proper care. At times, the camerawork better resembles Daryn Aronofsky on crack than Ang Lee.
As for The Hulk himself, it would be foolish to chastise the CGI, because aside from the grotesque Harry Knowles, there is no one big enough to play the part. Hulk's face looks especially good, and repeated shots of it restore the realism that his rippling, neon body rebuts. And despite the cartoonish exterior, Hulk somehow has a real presence on screen as he wreaks havoc on inanimate objects. However, when Hulk starts directly interacting with human characters, such as when he lifts Betty Ross out of harm's way, the interaction looks very Roger Rabbit-ish. It is aesthetically silly moments like this that undercut the serious tone established in the turgid first hour; in fact, the lovable monster vs. hasty government theme was carried out much better in the excellent and underrated Iron Giant, because at least that knew it was a cartoon. The Hulk is a bit confused.
What works best about the film are the few action sequences where The Hulk is engaged in battle with real objects like tanks and helicopters. When the Hulk swings vehicles around his head and tosses them like toys, and-as goofy as it is-bounds up and down the countryside, it looks absolutely incredible and has a sense of a fun the whole movie should live up to. Scenes where The Hulk fights digital Hulk-dogs and his mutated father are much less engaging, as they look like plastered cartoons and are too dark and rapidly cut to see what the hell is going on. A little CGI mixed with the real world can go a long way, but once the screen starts flooding with it, it's distancing.
Overall, The Hulk performs with mixed results. The talent helming the project is generally solid-Connelly, Nolte, and Bana all hit their one-note parts well, and Elfman rebounds from the thoroughly un-hummable Spiderman theme with a score that's eerily beautiful. Ang Lee also has his moments as he expands on The Hulk's simple story, spending enough time on repressed memories and the subconscious to make Freud giggle with glee. But Hulk loses points with its disorientating narrative, misbalanced tone, distancing CGI, and lack of a clear villain-there are three potential antagonists and three very weak final showdowns. Perhaps next time (and we all know there will be at least one 'next time') the filmmakers should translate from comic to movie more figuratively than literally. If we wanted to read the comic book, we'd read the comic book. There's a certain flat seriousness to this film, and The Hulk's havoc is much too thrilling to be held within dim panels.