One half of Ang Lee’s Hulk , based on the Marvel Comics character, is a symbolism-laden tragedy about "sins of the father" and masculine rage. The other half is an outrageously corny B-monster movie. It’s a difficult project to get a fix on. It’s tough not to be a little disappointed when you realize that the ominous opening is just set-up for a 15 foot green muscle monster to run amock on the streets of San Francisco. At the same time, I’m not entirely sure if tragic density is something we really need in a movie about the Hulk, whose status as a symbol of macho wrath is surely obvious enough with the movie’s heavy-handed treatment.
Bruce Banner, played here by Eric Banna, is a young, mild-mannered scientist who is doing some dangerous research with radiation and gene splicing. He’s following in the footsteps of his demented father, the military scientist David Banner, portrayed by Nick Nolte. Nolte’s performance weirdly echoes his great turn in Paul Schrader’s film, Affliction, which is another movie full of anguished fathers and sons. Years before, the elder Banner had conducted some mutation experiments on himself. Unbeknownst to his son, he’s genetically passed on the seeds of this work. Now Bruce’s flesh discloses mysterious traces of green whenever he gets mad. Inevitably, one of Bruce’s experiments goes awry and he is hit with a blast of gamma rays. This causes the monster in his blood to fully awaken: his limbs blow up to the size of tree trunks, his skin glows bright green, and he goes on the rampage. Now, The Hulk itself is an entirely animated creation–and a very unconvincing one. Is this cartoonish creature really meant to be the rage that dwells in the heart of Man? Lou Ferigno drenched in green paint was more cathartic. This is the stuff of countless mad scientist melodramas, to be sure, but Ang Lee invests every gesture and line of dialogue with unwarranted gravity. Thus, he drains the cliché-riddled story of its pulpy fun. When the Hulk finally appears, after a full hour of Oedipal angst, the moment is laughable, not thrilling, as it should be.
Setting aside the movie’s unwelcome grandiosity, there are some things to admire in Hulk . Bana barely registers as Bruce, but the performers are otherwise quite good. Nick Nolte, Jennifer Connelly, and especially Sam Elliot, give the drama great texture. Furthermore, despite the lousy special effect at its center, the movie has some nice graphic touches. Using split screens and other optical tricks, Lee and his production designers have managed to give the opening scenes the look and feel of Marvel Comic Book panels. Still, Hulk never quite shakes its schizoid feel. It’s like something cooked up in a mad scientist’s lab, an unholy fusion of Henrik Ibsen and Godzilla 1985.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current film, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.