Super Movies – Hulk, Part 2

Continuing a three-part look at Ang Lee’s Hulk from 2003. Before we get back to the movie, a few observations about what’s happened so far.

At this point in the picture, I’m sort of on the fence about it. On the one hand, I like Sam Elliott and Jennifer Connelly. I mostly like the way they’ve updated the origin story–the genetic research angle and Banner’s sacrifice to save the assistant. I like the way they’ve set up the themes and the emotional conflicts, although there do seem to be a few too many players to keep the story moving. I like Danny Elfman’s score, so different from the oom-pah stuff he does for Tim Burton. I even like some of the flashy pseudo-comic book visual styling.

But the pace is too slow. It’s 45 minutes in, and we’ve only just gotten our first glimpse of the Hulk as he busted up his laboratory, then fled into the night.

The next morning, Betty comes by Bruce’s place (she still has a key) and discovers Bruce passed out with his clothes torn to shreds. As they discuss the previous night–Bruce claims not to have gone to the lab, but to have had a vivid dream–he brings up his father just as there’s a knock on the door. Betty answers it and sees General Ross. She turns to Bruce and mouths, “My father,” although on cursory viewing, it looks like she could be saying, “motherfucker,” which would be just as apt. The General looks pissed.

He has Bruce’s wallet, which was squeezed out of his pants when he suddenly grew the incredible buttocks that allow him to jump miles at a time. Found in the lab, you know, the one where he just told Betty he didn’t go. Ross takes Betty out of the house and tells her that Bruce is forbidden fruit until they get to the bottom of what happened in the lab.

So Betty immediately looks up the janitor to find out what his story is. The visit starts out cordial enough, even though it’s obvious the dude is a creepy mess (sadly, my place is not appreciably neater than his).

He starts ranting about how the world will never understand his son because of his special unique specialness, and then he starts this creepy flirty thing, squeezing in beside Betty on the couch (so he can steal her scarf). Betty gets out of there pretty fast.

Meanwhile, Ross is interrogating Bruce and dancing around the fact that Bruce saw his mother get killed (but never actually saying it, because I guess it’s still supposed to be a surprise twist later), a memory Bruce has obviously repressed. Unfortunately, the audience saw this coming since the prologue, so playing coy about it now serves no purpose. Then Ross turns all rage-face crazy-eyes as he tells Bruce to stay away from Betty forever.

So Betty heads out to a cabin in the country that we recognize from Bruce’s flashback, while David Banner tosses Betty’s scarf to his dogs and tells them to find and kill her. Then he calls Bruce and tells him that Betty will die unless Bruce releases what’s inside of him. David Banner wants to study what makes Bruce tick and harvest it for his own benefit; his estranged son is no more than another lab animal to him.

Glenn Talbot chooses just that moment to show up and start knocking Bruce around because General Ross has locked Talbot out of the project.  And now, with Bruce frantically trying to get to Betty while serving as Talbot’s punching bag, we finally get to see the kind of Hulkout we’ve been waiting almost an hour for.

Bruce’s face turns green and he throws Talbot across the room, followed by this interesting visual effect where the room seems to shake with fear at what’s coming. And then we go from Eric Bana in greenface to a CGI Bruce transforming into a big and pissed-off Hulk. And he seems to have gotten a haircut in the process.

And this is where words start to fail, because I feel so many conflicting emotions on the movie’s Hulk. On the one hand, I love the design, so reminiscent of the classic Hulk of my childhood by artists like Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema. And there are times, especially in the big action production number we’ll discuss next week, when that carries over into action as well, when the Hulk will strike a pose and I think, “That could have been ripped straight out of the comic.”

But unfortunately, this Hulk seems to be standing really close to the center of the Uncanny Valley: not convincingly real, but not cool or stylized enough to make us forgive that.

Hulk tosses Talbot through the window and smashes out the wall in pursuit (amusingly, he still has one sock on). The guards outside open fire, and we can see the Hulk’s skin dimple as the bullets pepper him.

As he gets angrier, he gets bigger (he loses the sock here) and finally leaps away.

And now comes the scene that everybody complains about. Betty hears a sound outside the cabin, goes out and finds a gigantic Hulk, whom she somehow recognizes as Bruce even though he bears no resemblance to Bruce (Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk in The Avengers is the first Hulk I’ve ever seen, comic or movie, where Banner’s features are recognizable in the Hulk’s face). But their quiet moment is interrupted by the arrival of Daddy’s dogs.

The Hulk Dogs originated from a storyline in the comics, and I actually don’t hate the scene. The dogs’ appearance, mutated and over-muscled, but also mangy and diseased, is pretty intimidating. And the effects in the sequence are pretty amazing, like this moment where the poodle menaces Betty in the car, spittle covering the windshield.

The fight itself is pretty savage, but with some slapstick moments thrown in. The Hulk gets bitten in the crotch  and takes revenge on the wrong dog. Here he’s about to punch the pit bull in the balls.

And I think that may be the real problem with the sequence: that uneasy tension between savage fight and slapstick sight gags. Also the fact that although the Hulk was the most complex CGI character ever animated, they didn’t manage to make him look completely real, and so the thousands of man-hours spent developing the technology and doing the animation were dismissed by fanboys.

Once the dogs are dead, the now-naked Hulk stumbles to the lake shore and transforms back to Bruce. Betty is terrified of him, but also feels sorry for him. So she puts him to bed and the next morning, while he’s still asleep, she calls her father for help. He sends a tactical team to shoot Bruce with tranq darts.

Next thing you know, Bruce is locked in a steel box and being flown by cargo helicopter to a secret military base in the desert.

There are lots of split-screens and a bunch of cool hardware and this odd Bollywood-style warbling on the soundtrack, an interesting choice that seems thematically unrelated to anything else in the movie, but I still think it works for the scene. This base is huge and awesome.

Betty thought her dad would help Bruce, but the General plans to keep Bruce sedated forever while letting Talbot extract his DNA to experiment with. Meanwhile, the tactical team is assaulting David Banner’s house. He’s not there, though. He’s in Bruce’s old lab, cobbling together a new makeshift gamma machine and huffing nanomeds.

The experiment doesn’t turn him into another Hulk however. Instead, he begins exhibiting strange properties like merging with inanimate objects, taking on their color and physical properties.

He kills the security guard who interrupts him, but not before giving with a few crazy lines about how he partakes of the essence of all things, and I’m getting seriously tired of the old man by now..

Back at the base, we learn that this is the same base where Bruce’s father worked decades ago, or at least in the same area. Betty manages to take him for a walk to his old house, where he tries to remember what happened, but the trauma is too great. General Ross sends Betty home and turns Bruce over to Talbot. Talbot beats him up and zaps him with a cattle prod, but Bruce manages to hold off the change. Talbot knocks him out.

Meanwhile, David Banner goes to Betty and confesses the deep dark secret: that he killed Bruce’s mother in front of him. About freakin’ time, Movie! He promises to turn himself in without a fight, if only he can see Bruce one more time to make amends. And as he’s telling the story of how Bruce’s mom died, Bruce apparently dreams it in the isolation tank where Talbot is trying to force the change.

Which leads us into the final sequences, next week.

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