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'The Hulk'

Friday, June 20, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"The Hulk" does most of the little things well and too many of the big things poorly.

It's not easy being green. Click photo for larger image. (ILM/Universal Studios)

The Hulk

CRITIC'S CALL:
RATING: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity.
STARRING: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte.
DIRECTOR: Ang Lee.
OFFICIAL WEB SITE: www.thehulk.com

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The biggest thing in the movie is the title character, who resembles nothing so much as Frankenstein's monster on a year's worth of steroids. In the end, you have to find a way to take this big green computer-generated palooka seriously. And in the end, you can't.

I tried. And for a long time, the movie made me believe I could. The psychological basis of "The Hulk" is obvious -- our inner monster, the rage we hold within us -- and director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus (who wrote "The Hulk" with John Turman and Michael France) specialize in stories about repressed emotion. The movie devotes more than enough time to character development. It treats scientists and their work respectfully. The movie also remains true to its Marvel Comics origins.

You would expect the humanity of the characters ultimately to burst forth like Bruce Banner (Australian actor Eric Bana) turning into the Hulk, his anger reaching the boiling point until his body turns green and explodes out of his clothes.

The closest you get is Banner's colleague and former girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), defrosting just long enough to sob audibly after a Hulk rampage that doesn't end until he sees her and calms down like a suddenly tranquilized Rottweiler. Otherwise, these are not exactly demonstrative people -- and that never really changes, when it seems obvious that it must.

On the other extreme, there's Banner's father, David (Nick Nolte), who spends much of the movie either talking in the mono-tone of a lunatic trying to control himself or else raving like a man who has run out of scenery to chew.

He is responsible for Bruce's "condition" -- David conducted a genetic experiment on himself that was passed on to his son, who also became a scientist. An accidental exposure to a lethal dose of gamma rays activates the anomaly within, which turns Bruce into the Hulk when he gets angry.

For all the time spent on childhood traumas and harmful fathers and the dangers of technology and various forms of megalomania and our penchant for violence, for every moment in which I imagined the movie heading in the direction of "King Kong" or "Beauty and the Beast," it all ends up with seemingly invulnerable computer-generated creatures battling each other to the death on an otherworldly landscape. Where, exactly, is the humanity in that?

The best comic-book movies -- "Spider-Man" and the two "X-Men" films -- work precisely because the heroes' super powers are extensions of their humanity and therefore comment upon our own. We never forget the real identities and real problems of these characters.

But the Hulk isn't an extension of Bruce Banner so much as an alter ego, a split personality. Bruce is played by a human being. The Hulk is a figment of a computer's imagination.

Frankly, he looks better on screen than I expected from the movie's trailer, which made the movie look cheesier than Velveeta. But the computer graphics are very uneven. The fakery is evident in some of the scenes showing the Hulk tossing around furniture, cars, tanks -- whatever's handy.

In a scene featuring a fight with some genetically enhanced dogs, some of the mutts look more funny than scary. And when we get to see the Hulk transform back into Bruce Banner, he seems to be melting like the wicked witch in "The Wizard of Oz."

It's all the more disappointing because Lee does a remarkable job using split-screen techniques (evoking not only the panels of a comics page but also suggesting the split personality of his hero), fluid montages and visual shorthand to get through an unusually large amount of exposition -- wordlessly in many scenes.

He almost achieves a haunting quality in the flashbacks and dream sequences that go back to Banner's childhood on a military base in a desert that symbolizes the emotional austerity of the characters. The psychological content, the deliberate pace and the intensity of some of the violence should give parents pause -- this is not a movie for young children.

Still, you may have to resist the urge to giggle like a kid in scenes such as the one where the Hulk, pursued by military planes, catches a missile in midair, chews off the tip and throws it back at an aircraft, which falls clattering to the ground like a toy.

Like the title character, "The Hulk" has a split personality of its own.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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