A number of extremely talented people worked to try to make this the best movie possible.  It’s hugely ambitious and has a complex, elaborate editing scheme.  I liked it a lot better than I did when I saw it in the theater. 

I wish I had a better understanding of exactly what the hell is going on in it.

This paragraph from A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times sums up my feelings regarding the plot:

“I’m far from an expert in such matters, but I would have thought that a combination of nanomeds and gamma radiation would be sufficient to make a nerdy researcher burst out of his clothes, turn green and start smashing things. I have now learned that this will occur only if there is a pre-existing genetic anomaly compounded by a history of parental abuse and repressed memories. This would be a fascinating paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, but it makes a supremely irritating — and borderline nonsensical — premise for a movie.”

And I also agree with this paragraph:

“All of this takes a very long time to explain, usually in choked-up, half-whispered dialogue or by means of flashbacks inside flashbacks. Themes and emotions that should stand out in relief are muddied and cancel one another out, so that no central crisis or relationship emerges.”

The tone sways wildly from ponderous to outrageously campy, sometimes in the same scene.  At one moment a father and daughter discuss the unpredictability of the human heart, at the next moment the daughter is attacked by a giant mutated poodle.  At one moment the Hulk is smashing tanks and swatting down helicopters, the next moment he’s lounging on a hillside contemplating lichens with a misty, faraway look in his eyes.  At one moment a father and son have a colloquy on matters of identity and social order, the next moment Nick Nolte is gnawing on an electrical cable.

There are three bad guys, and none of their plots seem to make any sense.  The biggest of them, which gets a very late start at an hour and eighteen minutes into the movie, involves Nick Nolte turning on some kind of machine and huffing on some sort of hose, then turning into some kind of super-being with some kind of super-powers which are visually impressive but which also seem tacked on, forced and incoherent.

There seems to be some kind of battle going on between the creative team and the genre they’re working in.  They’ve chosen to make a movie about an enraged green smashing guy, but they also want the movie to be about “deep” themes and ideas.  They’ve given their protagonist an inward journey (“Who am I?”) instead of an outward problem (“I’ve got to stop the bad guys”) and so the narrative seems choked, static and listless at just the points where it should be fleet, extravagant and larger-than-life.

Then there’s some problems with the plot.  I’ve seen the movie twice now and there’s things I just don’t follow.  I think I know why Hulk’s dad tries to kill him but I don’t know why he set off whatever green bomb thing he set off, or what the consequences of the blast were.  I know in the comic book, it’s the “gamma blast” that created the Hulk, but here the script takes great pains to explain that the blast had nothing to do with it.  Then why is it in the movie?

Then there’s the matter of the General’s daughter.  This is a movie about, among other things, intergenerational conflicts, and so in addition to a scientist who has problems with his scientist father, there is a daughter who has problems with her general father.  And the plot has to bend itself into a pretzel in order to keep those conflicts afloat, which is too bad because there isn’t much interesting going on in them. 

But for the record, here goes:  A Long Time Ago, there was this army base, see?  And there was this general.  And the general had a daughter.  And the general was tussling with this scientist, who blew up the base with the Gamma bomb and then ran home to try to murder his son.  And then many years later, the son grew up, forgot all about his murderous father, and then became a scientist, where he, by sheer coincidence, began studying in the exact same field as his murderous father, alongside the general’s now-grown-up daughter!  This is a plot to make The Comedy of Errors seem like the acme of observational behavioralism.

Then there’s whatever Nick Nolte turns into.  It’s pitched as the big battle that the narrative has been leading up to all this time, but it comes off as a late attempt to kick the movie into gear.  Nick Nolte argues with his son, bites into an electrical cable, becomes a Big Weird Thing, then flies off, somehow, with The Hulk, to Some Place Far Away where the two of them fight as Nick turns into rocks and water and lightning and ice.  Then a jet comes by and drops some kind of Large Bomb on them and somehow that takes care of Nick but also leaves Hulk alive.  If anyone has any idea what any of that is supposed to mean, please let me know.

Then there are the special effects, which never quite take off.  There are moments of great visual flair and compelling action, although the titular Hulk never really seems to be part of the scene he’s in.  That’s okay, I don’t quite buy the special effects in the Spider-Man movies either.  The difference, I think, is that the Spider-Man movies are pulp, understand they are pulp and function well as pulp, carrying their cliched truths lightly and with grace, while this movie slows down so often to think about “serious ideas” that it gives you too much time to realize how silly all of it is.
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13 Responses to “Hulk”
  1. craigjclark says:

    If anyone has any idea what any of that is supposed to mean, please let me know.

    Does the DVD have a commentary track? If so, maybe Ang Lee has some ideas. If not, I’m fairly certain you’re S.O.L.

  2. mr_noy says:

    I’m usually willing to forgive some narrative incoherence if I’m being sufficiently entertained. Unfortunately, the movie wants to be bigger and more important than it really is. It’s almost as if the film is embarrassed by its pulpy origins while simultaneously trying to visually pay homage to the medium that inspired it. By trying to elevate Hulk’s pulpy origins to that of high tragedy and by being the first film to fully embrace the visual conventions of multi-panel story telling it practically screams to be taken seriously as a piece of Art with a capitol A.

    Unfortunately, like it’s titular hero, it ultimately becomes too big for it’s own purple britches. Previous comic-book films have done a better job of balancing melodrama with whiz-bang superhero theatrics. In the final analysis, the film fails for me simply because it will not allow itself to be fun.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    Thank you. My friends, who hate virtually every movie, liked this one. And I was at a loss to explain why I didn’t like it as much, except that it was very muddled.

    And that final fight scene was so dark I could hardly see what was going on, much less understand it.

  4. ghostgecko says:

    You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head, the difference between a good comic book movie and a bad comic book movie: taking things too seriously. It’s why Tim Burton’s Batman, glorious mess that it is, will always snag my attention when I’m channel flipping but Batman Begins didn’t kick out of granny until the 45 minute mark and the sequel (HEATH LEDGER as the JOKER?!?!?!) looks like it’s going to drag as well, and Superman Returns was like the Lifetime channel version of itself.
    I dunno – it seems like if you want to make a film that will win an Oscar, make a movie about a retarded guy who saves people from Nazis. Gold statue garunteed. If you’re making a comic book movie, make a goddamn comic book movie and be proud of it for what it is.
    That’s not saying comic book movies can’t have big ideas. The characters are so vivid and minimalist they can’t help but be archetypal, and are that much stronger for it. And there’s nothing wrong with scientific gobbledegook (artificial skin that lets you impersonate anyone, even if their size and build is radically different from your own? sure, why not?). I think it’s the omphalopsychology of it – the stopping to navel gaze, to beat you over the head with the blunt freudianisms – that kills it.

  5. urbaniak says:

    I haven’t seen it but to my mind Nick Nolte gnawing on an electrical cable has everything to do with matters of identity and social order.

  6. The Hulk is one of my favorite cinematic trainwrecks. Oh, I’m not saying I enjoy it or anything (okay, maybe one or two of the shots), but what I enjoy is the idea that Marvel, hot on the heels of their triumphant success with Spiderman and X-Men, decided to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at arguably their third biggest character in hopes of continuing their good fortune, hired a top flight director, and he gave them…crazy. Everybody knows the Hulk’s story, right? Mild-mannered scientist gets belted by gamma rays, turns into a raging, green, easily merchandised monster–it’s a no-brainer, right? Give ‘im a ton of money, we want to see some tanks get thrown around! He wants to hire quality actors? Sure! What’s that? He’s editing it with multiple panels in the shots–just like a comic book? By god, Ang gets it! Tell him to keep it up!

    And then…what the f—?!?

    It is so absolutely the antithesis of what a “comic book movie” is supposed to be–was expected to be–that I love it just for its audacity.

    Second favorite trainwreck? A.I. For the visible wrestling between the Spielberg sentimentality and the cold, Kubrickian cynicism that took no less than four endings to decide and still ended in a draw.

    • Todd says:

      Well, now this is interesting. Because it’s been a while since I’ve read Hulk comics, and since Ang Lee is a pretty freakin’ talented guy, I decided that before watching the movie this time I was going to deliberately put all thoughts of pre-existing Hulk material from my mind so that I could experience what, if anything, the movie was trying to do on its own merits.

      And that’s exactly where it seems to fall apart. It’s like “No, see, it’s not the gamma radiation, the stuff was already in him!” But then it’s also “And then there was this gamma radiation thing!” Oh, you mean in the science lab? “Yeah, but also at the Army base when he was a kid!” And I smile politely and nod my head calmly start reaching for the remote.

      And I agree on AI, although as Spielberg gets older I appreciate both him trying to put his ego aside to facilitate the dream of an older (and, formally, much different) master. I didn’t know there were four endings, but I believe it. I just wish that the robots had said to each other, at some point, “You know, just because we look like aliens doesn’t mean we are. We are, in fact, highly advanced robots, as anyone could plainly see.”

      • No doubt ol’ Ang was trying to make a point that true “monsters” aren’t spawned overnight, but are the result of years of systematic abuse. Actually, now that I think of it, go back and re-watch the entire thing through the lens of an allegory for child abuse. It all becomes so clear! The victim of domestic violence follows in the footsteps of his father and becomes an abuser himself. The Hulk even reminds me of a stomping, wailing infant in the middle of his tantrums. And the bigger he gets, the angrier…the further he is from having real power, real control. Then of course the love of a woman gives him the real strength–to change–and harness his child abuse powers to save the rain forests. I get it now.

        I take back a little of what I said about A.I. It’s too easy to blame Spielberg for all of the more sentimental and campy moments, having no idea who really contributed what. And I do respect his effort (and his ability to change his style and focus in many of his recent films). When I mentioned the “four endings” though, I didn’t mean some lost alternate endings or anything like that–I meant in the actual picture. When he’s underwater, trying to talk to the Blue Fairy, for YEARS…I was sitting there thinking “wow, you evil son of a bitch…that’s a fantastic ending! I can’t believe you had the balls to…” and then…”what? What are those, aliens? Okay…” And then they grant him the Mommy wish…and, well…with each subsequent “ending” it just got more sappy.

        Then again, I’m the guy who thought “Les Miserables” was over at the end of the first act, and actually had to be called back into the theater by my companions, so what do I know?

        • Todd says:

          I agree that the “…and he sat at the bottom of the ocean for 10,000 years” moment would have made a natural ending, but the whole point (as someone who followed the project closely, as I was working on the Astroboy movie at the time, and we wanted to be careful not to replicate it) of Kubrick’s treatment was that this little boy robot, who was thrown out and abused by the human community that created him, eventually ends up becoming the sole representative of that community, the only one who actually knew humans for what they were. And the little robot who wanted so badly to be human finally gets his wish, which means, of course, that he must die. It’s really such a sad, heartbreaking movie and once I get past all the Spielberg cutisms I find it quite affecting.

          If Ang Lee wanted to make a movie about the Hulk being a symbol of child abuse, he could have done that, but then he also felt the need to put the “comic book” elements into the narrative as well, which leads to a few embarrassing, incoherent moments. But it’s that complexity that made me want to go back and re-watch it in the first place, otherwise I could have gladly gone the rest of my life un-watching it.

        • Todd says:

          And now that I’m thinking about it, one of the things that doesn’t work about Lee’s approach is that it takes a character that anyone can identify with (“Gee, Hulk has trouble controlling his temper, just like me”) and changes it to a character that no one can identify with (“Gee, Hulk was the unwanted child of a deranged scientist, who infected him genetically with nanomeds and bombarded him with gamma radiation when he blew up an army base, just like — um…”).

          • True ‘dat. It was as if he looked at the source material and thought “no no no…this will never do. You don’t just turn into a green monster if you absorb too many gamma rays, you get cancer” and decided to try to find a more “believable” origin to “ground” the film in reality. And then he went hoppin’ ass crazy. It’s really kind of a shame. Because he had the talent, the cast and the money to pull off a great comic book film–all of which he could have wrung the range of emotions out of to tell any kind of “struggle of the human soul” story he desired–but then he blew it all on a movie that was 2/3 incomprehensible origin tale.

            They say they’re making another Hulk movie. Maybe to appease all the kids who bought the big green foam rubber hands from the first one, but have absolutely no idea how to go about playing with them. Because that movie didn’t make them feel like playing. And they have no idea what the story was about, having fallen asleep before the monster ever showed up.

  7. toku666 says:

    It doesn’t help that the Big Weird Thing Nolte turns into looks like a gigantic gaseous ass.

    (Ob. “Isn’t that what Nolte -always- looks like?” joke here)