An imaginative and exciting comicbook drama about super-heroic power fantasy, and one man’s uncontrollable anger, Ang Lee’s magnificent Hulk is very probably the best SF adventure thriller of the last 15 years. While the X-Men movies are everything I’d hoped for and fulfilled unpretentious expectations, Hulk is vastly superior to anything I’d thought was possible in Hollywood. Strong performances from the gifted principal cast, the convoluted and ambiguous nanotech-genetic-gamma ‘creation myth’ for the gigantic green monster (which is simply more scientifically plausible than Marvel Comic’s straightforward gamma-bomb mutation origin) and a slow-building plotline that gives the scenes of mass destruction far greater impact and dramatic weight than any other Marvel or DC comicbook-based movies, are all combined so that Hulk sets a new higher standard for comicbook action cinema that will be difficult to improve upon.
A civilian research laboratory run by Bruce Banner (Eric Bana, of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down) and Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, from the extremely disturbing Requiem For A Dream) are testing nanotechnology applications using gamma irradiation to trigger cellular regeneration in reptiles. Inevitably, the military take an interest, and ruthlessly ambitious Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) plots a hostile takeover of the project. Then a routine experiment goes wrong, causing a nuclear accident that fails to kill Bruce, yet transforms him into the strongest and most powerful creature on Earth. Betty’s father, a US Army general (played with great subtlety and menace by Sam Elliott, notable for Tombstone, 1993, and Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, 1988)
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captures the potential ‘super-weapon’ when Hulk reverts back into a bewildered Bruce, but cannot contain the monster, who breaks out of an underground military base and wreaks havoc in a spectacular desert battle against US Army tanks, some hi-tech ‘Comanche’ stealth helicopters (in scenes reminiscent of King Kong), and F-22 warplanes before a seemingly ‘cosmic’ final encounter with the Hulk’s nemesis – his father…
There’s much to admire in this literate adaptation of Marvel’s iconic anti-hero. With lots of advanced split-screen work, and even control-room monitor screens to evoke comicbook ‘frames’, Hulk delivers an ingenious blending of the physical and the virtual, where CGI and real world footage are seamlessly integrated in a manner that results in stunning visual effects sequences throughout the movie’s latter half. But there’s even more to Hulk than cutting-edge cinema technologies, as director Ang Lee brings a frankly startling ‘artistic’ sensibility to every aspect of this genre blockbuster, reportedly Universal Studio’s biggest ever production.
Not shy of abstraction (many of the witty transitional effects comment, albeit obliquely, on the story’s biological and technological themes), symbolism (Hulk’s lifting of the gamma sphere recalls the ironically familiar image of Greek deity Atlas – with the world supported on his shoulders), or contemplative moods (Hulk gazes with mute wonder at coloured mosses on desert rocks, as if surprised to find anything alive in such a hostile environment), Lee’s aesthetic tendencies for presenting cinema narrative, and his variably successful filmic attempts to explore ‘speculative’ fictional connections, are apparent throughout the storyline. Hulk winningly conveys the aspect of a reluctant hero. Unaware of evil in the world, the Hulk isn’t a champion of justice or a superhuman avenger. He represents the underdog, a scourge of discrimination and hostility and, certainly, a thorn on the side of intolerance. Yet the Hulk doesn’t really want to fight anything or anyone, and only goes on the rampage when he’s cruelly provoked into violence. This engagingly psychological approach to comicbook material ensures that many of the non-action, non-dialogue scenes have a unique energy and colourful affect of their own.
A nightmarish mirror view scene has Bruce face-to-face with the Hulk, permitting the script to incorporate the Marvel comic’s most frequently repeated line: “Puny human!” registering the Hulk’s annoyance when dealing with mere mortals. There’s tremendous visceral impact in Hulk’s defence of Betty against three mutated and monstrous dogs at the Sequoia park homestead (where the huge creature blends into the greenery, amusingly camouflaged by nature at night), and David Banner (Nick Nolte, quite unashamedly chewing up the scenery at one stage) is psychotically intimidating before the melodramatic and impressionistic finale, where he transforms via a supposedly lethal electromagnetic discharge into the Hulk comic’s most inspired supervillain, the Absorbing Man (though this alter-ego character is referred to only as “the Father” here).
With the emphasis on anxiety, frustration, repressed memories and psychic trauma instead of physical assault or violence as the trigger for Bruce’s change into Hulk, this remarkable screen adaptation of the early 1960s’ comicbook (created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby) releases the scientist’s childhood demons that are bottled up like lightning, in an utterly compelling Jekyll and Hyde transformation sequence that stretches out and stresses time itself, from heartbeat seconds into a moment of evident recognition when the innocent Hulk first meets his obsessed father – before leaving Bruce’s trashed nuclear lab straight up through the roof, and bounding away into the night. In this review’s quote from worried antagonist General Ross, we could easily replace ‘un-secure’ with ‘insecure’ to make plain just how vulnerable the Hulk’s psyche is.
The romanticised climactic scene on the streets of San Francisco, where the Hulk is calmed by the arrival of Betty is reminiscent of the emotional climax of Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), another film of ‘excess’ and the discovery of a unique, transformative power. There’s even a scene in Hulk with Bruce suspended inside a sensory deprivation tank, directly evoking the experiments into racial memory and human truth by Jessup (William Hurt) in Altered States. Although Hulk rewrites modern history by showing David Banner performing genetic research in the 1960s, there’s an impressive sense of authenticity in the Berkeley lab sets where next-generation scientists Bruce and Betty perform their nanotech trials, and the other convincingly realistic bits of hardware counterbalance the drama’s more ‘fantastic’ elements.
Hulk is the most supremely imaginative genre adventure since RoboCop. With its intelligent screenplay based on a complex, ambiguously mythic backstory, this dazzling film is carried along by its director’s uncompromising creativity and commitment to exploring the characters of damaged children (Bruce, Betty) haunted by the presence of repressive fathers (David, T-bolt), in scenes of intense human tragedy – tempered by a nonetheless upbeat tone, massive widescreen views of destruction, and tightly controlled dramatic impact. The visual effects produced by ILM establish a new benchmark for fantasy action cinema.
The special edition DVD has a superb anamorphic transfer of the main feature, with Dolby digital 5.1 or DTS sound options, plus English or Dutch subtitles. The director’s commentary (also available as subtitles) offers fascinating insights, and is one of the most interesting I’ve heard for such an obviously generic film. There is also a Hulk-cam feature, granting access to behind-the-scenes footage available throughout the film, and a teaser-trailer for next year’s Thunderbirds movie. Disc two has some deleted scenes (including an inspirational talk – by Bana as Banner, explaining the great potential of nanotech); a bog-standard making-of featurette; the somewhat gimmicky interactive item Superhero Revealed: The Anatomy Of The Hulk – which dissects a 3D model of the CG star; Evolution Of The Hulk and The Dog Fight Scene look at general and specific aspects of this groundbreaking production; Hulkification celebrates the “You’re making me angry” scene with a selection of artwork drawn in various styles; a look at the unique editing style of this film, and The Incredible Ang Lee – a tribute to the director. DVD-ROM stuff on the extras disc is comprised of four desktop wallpapers and a screensaver.