What a curious film Hulk is. Part intense psycho-drama, part hyperactive CGI fest, it’s a kids’ movie (or, at least, it has been marketed as such) that features implied child experimentation and the violent death of a parent.
In a lengthy and really rather good credit sequence we learn that the child Bruce Banner was born after his scientist father, in the employ of the military, had experimented upon himself. As a result the child and adult Bruce (Eric Bana) is an emotionally stunted introvert, a state exacerbated by his suppression of the memory of the violent end of his parents’ marriage that resulted in his adoption.
Now a successful scientist himself, working in the exact same area as his father, coincidentally (as one character points out, in one of the few arch moments in the film), Bruce and ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) are making progress on a formula that enables physical wounds to heal almost immediately. Their work has attracted the attention of both their industrial competitor, Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) and Betty’s father, General Ross (Sam Elliott), a military bigwig who, you’ve guessed it, was a contemporary of Bruce’s father, David, who now reappears in the shambling form of Nick Nolte.
If all that sounds very involved for a comic strip adaptation, director Lee manages to pull it together well enough that it’s a good forty minutes or so into the movie before you realise the Big Green Selling Point himself has yet to appear. The shirt-tearing begins after Bruce has been accidentally exposed to the ‘Gamma radiation’ that triggers his molecular peculiarity, causing him to display a shortness of temper previously unfamiliar to him, and an unusual side-effect previously unfamiliar to anyone.
Ang Lee’s forte is family dramas of one sort or other – whether set in contemporary China (Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, 1994), heritage England (Sense and Sensibility, 1995) or Nixon’s America (The Ice Storm, 1997) – and he and his long-time collaborator James Schamus (who co-wrote Hulk’s screenplay) have manufactured a backstory for Hulk which allows them to again explore familial tensions, albeit via a broader (and considerably more expensive) genre. This transplanting of the filmmakers’ thematic concerns onto the comic book material works surprisingly well, perhaps because the character of the Hulk himself is a blank canvas. As a rapacious consumer of Marvel comics as a young child and early teen, I never warmed to the Hulk myself. I now think this is precisely because he rarely did anything but react to external events, and I found the psychological baggage that Lee and his screenwriters have concocted for Bruce Banner welcome if not entirely convincing.
But Hulk works less well as an action movie, and the fault lies not so much in the Hulk as an entirely CGI creation (‘acted’ by Lee himself during the shooting) than in the problem of him being fundamentally dull viewing. Hulk makes a lot of mess, jumps very high and trashes some military hardware, but this can’t sustain the entire second half of the film. There’s a truly bizarre sequence involving Hulk fighting off three genetically mutated dogs that David Banner has unleashed on Betty that takes place in semi-darkness which was presumably dropped into the screenplay in a self-conscious attempt at a ‘set-piece’, but it only serves to highlight the narrative dead-end towards which the film is rushing at top speed.
The film that Hulk most reminded me of was Spielberg’s A.I (2001). In both cases sequences (and, in A.I.’s case, entire storylines) feel shoehorned in to satisfy the presumed demands of an audience for which the film is fundamentally inappropriate. Both were aggressively marketed as children’s (or, at least, family) films – while predicated upon the kinds of experiences that would send most infants screaming from the theatre – with the result that those audiences who might actually enjoy them most will never actually see them.
In a pretty poor year for calculated blockbusters, Hulk has much more to recommend it than, for example, the incoherent X-Men 2 or tired Terminator 3, and it is to be hoped that the Ang Lee fans who couldn’t face going to the cinema and asking ‘2 for the Hulk, please’ will ensure it finds a longer shelf life on DVD. But I fear the manufacturers of the Hulk advent calendars, dolls and Christmas cards that are starting to appear in the shops are in for a pretty lean Yule.