After seeing the lightweight sorta-sequel The Incredible Hulk, I became interested in revisiting this film again. I remember quite liking it as it unfolded in the theater, until that last, utterly inexplicable 20 minutes, in which, as was my quip for many years: "The Hulk and villain turn into radioactive clouds and the clouds fight each other?" So watch it I did, and loved every second of it, in addition to watching several sequences several times.
Here's the dish: Lee was just coming off his huge success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and of course his earlier talky drama successes The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility. Everyone thought "Sweet! He'll make a good movie that will also kick ass!" Because as you recall, Crouching Tiger made mainstream audiences feel like they were watching an ART film and also a FOREIGN film, but one where there were still kick-ass fights! Then the movie came out, and the mainstream comic audience found that they didn't REALLY want long, talky dramas dwell on their heroes' psychologies [except Bryan Singer, obviously]. It had a huge opening! It dropped 75% in its second week! And was generally put down as a flop. Only now there are several who like a respect it. Which brings us right up to this page, which will obviously become the definitive word, and be cast in bronze and shot into space for alien cultures to benefit from.
Okay! So the Universal DVD begins with some trailers that you CANNOT skip past OR fast-forward through. Imagine, the poor people who bought this DVD have to suffer through a trailer for animated turd Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas every single time they pop in this disc! That's just plain hostile. Then we have a credit sequence where we see a bunch of starfish and jellyfish get experimented on for their regenerative qualities. This is David Banner, Bruce's dad, who eventually injected himself with his serums. His wife then gets pregnant, and soon enough he realizes that he has passed some kind of genetic mutation on to his son. This is all apparently deviating from the mythology of the comics, in which Bruce is the Hulk just because of the Gamma radiation burst he later receives. Anyway, eventually Banner is fired from the Army [by the guy who grows up to be Betty's dad, General Ross], and [I believe] triggers a Gamma radiation blast as an extra little kiss-off. I was unclear on whether this is just for the mass destruction any good disgruntled employee wants, or purposely to expose himself and his son to the power, and I still don't know. Anyway, Dad came home and locked himself in the bedroom with mom, from which four-year-old David heard disturbing screams. We then see that young David was adopted, became a scientist, and works in Berkley. He arrives at work soon after breaking off a romance with Betty Ross, played by Jennifer Connelly, because she couldn't stand how emotionally bottled-up he is.
Bruce and Betty are on a team that is working on regeneration—the exact same thing his father was working on! They succeed in making a frog repair a cut in its back, but then it goes too far and the frog explodes. By the way, by now one has noticed that Lee is trying to approximate the look and feel of comic books by using lots of split-screens, quick edits and pans. It's kind of fun and helps to leaven the perhaps over-serious nature of the story, however it walks a fine line, as every time it happens it runs a risk of making you think about how the movie was MADE, which can only take you away from getting involved in the story. Betty presses Bruce to remember his birth parents, and tells him of a memory she has of suddenly being left alone by her father, and then seeing this huge Gamma burst in the distance. So it's likely that she and Bruce at least saw each other as kids on this Army base. In here we also introduce slimy Josh Lucas as Talbot, who wants to buy their research for the Army to make indestructible soldiers.
Then there's an accident in the lab and Bruce is blasted with Gamma radiation. Betty is freaked because he should have been killed, but not only is he fine, he feels great. That night the new janitor comes in for a chat and it turns out he's—BRUCE'S DAD! Who has been in prison for 30 years. He wants to see what Bruce is up to and essentially wants to keep experimenting on him, and he expects Bruce to agree. Incidentally, in here, we're also getting little flashbacks of the memory Bruce has repressed, and in an important one the door to his locked parents room opens, and he sees The Hulk in there.
So after some other hugger-mugger, Bruce is alone in the lab one night and, well, I guess he's just under a lot of stress lately, because it seems like pretty much nothing is happening, yet he turns into the Hulk. He destroys his lab, sees his Daddy for a second [or rather his daddy sees him], and he runs off. Soon after General Ross takes custody of Bruce and tells him to stay the hell away from Betty. The implication is that Ross saw David Banner in Hulk form, and knows that this is again what he's dealing with.
Anyway, so Bruce is chillin' at home—you know, surrounded by a SWAT team of armed guards—when Talbot comes over and is all pissed that Bruce won't sign his sponsorship deal or whatnot. He calls Bruce a wuss and beats him up, not knowing that he shouldn't make him angry. He wouldn't like him when he's angry. This is where we get our first full on-screen transformation into the Hulk and, well, it leaves a bit to be desired. The problem is that he doesn't really look like he's THERE in the room, and at times, well, he looks like a green circus peanut. Anyway, he tosses Talbot through the front of the house and takes off.
Meanwhile Betty has gone to the cabin amongst the Sequoias to relax with some Celestial Seasonings Calming Chamomile, when she hears a noise outside and finds her big ol' Hulk behind a tree. This scene is a little too dark to show you here, but they obviously made up a big fake tree with falsely ornate curves and—it looks great. It's one of those little artsy touches that really works. Betty recognizes Bruce and they have a little intimate moment—and dagnabbit, why do the quiet times always have to be ruined by mutated dogs? Yep, Papa Hulk doesn't want his son messing with that tawdry tart either, so he sent his Hulkified dogs after her. I LOVE how one of them is a poodle, and appreciate how they NEVER mention it or make a joke about it. This leads to the first major action sequence as Hulk battles the dogs, all around the outside of the cabin and up into the trees. When I saw this in the theater I was impressed with how the movie really got a lot of energy about the simple cathartic act or picking something up and hurling it, which Hulk does with the dogs, and later, several other things. At home, it didn't quite work so well. Maybe it's because the sound is not deafening, but the CGI Hulk and CGI dogs just didn't seem to have the physical weight of a real object that is really there, so somehow it's just not as thrilling as it was in the theater, where I found this scene to be a real kick. Anyway, one thing I didn't notice except on video is that at around 1:03:20 the poodle bites and tugs on the Hulk's CROTCH! Then the Hulk picks up the dog that was chewin' his pud and bitchslaps it! These kids of things are interesting to me, especially since, as all this is animated, we know someone or some group of people gave some serious thought to the poodle biting the Hulk's greenie weenie and devoted some serious time to rendering it. I also think it's not going too far to say that there is some gay-related "commentary" going on here: It's the POODLE, the swish dog, that bites Hulks cock [and tugs on it repeatedly with its mouth], and subsequently gets not punched, but bitchslapped—the swish punishment. It's right there on film, folks. Anyway, then Hulk turns back into Bruce, who gets a little miffed with his hands around Betty's neck, which she's not quite sure she's comfortable with.
SPOILERS > > >
So she turns him in to her dad! For his own good, of course. They fly him out to the desert and take him to a lab deep, deep underground [Milla Janovich is there], while we have more split-screens that turn out not to be split, and join together. Talbot takes control of him and tries to get him pissed-off, so he can take a sample and make a super-race of invincible Army warriors! Honestly, was there ever a person in the military who WASN'T trying to develop some sort of super-weapon? Meanwhile, back home, Papa Banner puts himself through a gamma burst to see what'll happen, and ends up with some strange power where he starts to become whatever he's touching. Then there's a little repressed-memory action as Betty takes Bruce out to the old military encampment where he remembers a little bit, and that they must have known each other, and then a funny thing happens: we see Bruce's DAD have a memory of what happened on that fateful day back when: Dad was going to kill Bruce because he's a monstrosity, but accidentally killed mom instead. Recipe for trauma! Anyway, somehow DAD'S memory makes BRUCE mad [implying some sort of collective consciousnessing or whatnot], and he Hulks out in this tank. The effects here are pretty good, but again, the huge objects that are thrown just don't seem HEAVY. Talbot finally dies in a way that is satisfying, but pointedly NOT sadistic. He is surrounded by a white border and vanishes in a fireball in a sort of cartoony way that lets us know he is dead but without having to show us him writhing in agony, and you sort of have to respect the basic humanity of that. Even though I wanted to see flying body parts, but whatever. Anyway, Ross lets Hulk outside and then we have the big, 20-minute Hulk rampage!
First he discovers that he can leap long distances—like we're talking miles. He goes back to contemplate his family home once more, before the military blows it WAYYY up. Then he leaps into the air to escape some missiles, and sails through the upper atmosphere, arms outstretched. These Hulk leaps are going to be hit-or-miss for some people, as they verge on silly, but personally, I loved them. I think Ang Lee is trying to express incredible physical freedom and the exhilaration that can bring, and that's really what much of this rampage sequence is about, but especially the lyrical leaps. Hulk takes on tanks! Helicopters! Then fighter jets! Along the way we get to see that he has traces of a sense of humor [he bites the warhead out of a missile, then spits it at a helicopter] and irony [he bends a tank gun back to point at its gunner]. We have more lyrical leaps as he jumps up to San Francisco, where he just happens to land atop the Golden Gate Bridge. We then have the first glimmers of Hulk as a sort of "hero" as one of the jets is about to crash into the bridge, but Hulk jumps on it in order to protect the innocent citizens of San Francisco. The jet takes him up into the stratosphere, until he finally falls off—having a little dream on the way down wherein Hulk looks at Bruce, calls him "Puny Human," and pulls him through a mirror—before finally splashing down in the water.
Oh but wait. There's a moment in here where Hulk is in some National Park among some amazing geological formations, and Ross wants to collapse all the rocks and bury our green friend. But responsible filmmaker Ang Lee needs to make sure that we in the movie audience understands that the government hasn't killed any innocent hikers, so he has Ross turn to someone and order the area cleared. 15 seconds later, some dude barks "Everyone clear!" …which is kind of hilarious when you think of the government deploying agents to scour the area, find all hikers, picnic groups and campers in the area, and get them to grab all their equipment and safely evacuate the area—all in 15 seconds! But I appreciate that Lee wants us to know that the government isn't just killing innocent bystanders.
Anyway, the Hulk comes up in SF, causes a lot of cars to roll down the hill, and is about to take down this helicopter when he sees it's got Betty in it. She comes down to him and he calms down and turns back into Bruce [the waistband of those shorts really stretches!]. He says "You found me," and she says "It wasn't hard" and he replies—referencing the effort she has put into getting him to emotionally open up—"Yes it was," Awww! Big hug! And this is where they should have added one more thing—Hulk saves a schoolbus of kids, that's just off the top of my head—and let the thing end, but END IT DOES NOT.
NO! It goes on for 20 more minutes, all ill-advised, in which we have the most freaked-out, barely-sensical climax you have ever seen in a mainstream movie! So Daddy Banner comes to Ross and demands a therapeutic one-on-one with his son, on the Army's dime! They are given this huge spotlit stage on which to have their big emotional scene, confronting each other over the mother's death, and if you stop to think, you're like—"Wait a minute, the government is suddenly ponying up vast amounts of money for family-based primal scream therapy?" Dad says "I didn't come here to see you [Bruce], I came to see my son," i.e. The Hulk. Now that's got to sting. That was uncalled-for. Then the movie leaves all human sense behind. Dad takes a bite out of the power cable, and turns into this giant energy-beast. Bruce turns into Hulk. Then dad—well, I really don't understand WHAT happens, but suddenly we're seeing a lot of pretty lightning with Hulk shapes in them. Then they both land in a mountain lake. Then Dad has turned into water, and demands that the Hulk "give him his power." How exactly that's going to happen is not fully explained. Then dad expands into a big bubble of water [?], and the Army gamma-nukes him. And while you're still staring at the screen wondering what just happened, we see Bruce is in Costa Rica or somewhere.
I thought I would understand it on the second go-round, but I didn't! I had to go back a few times to try to get it, and here's a sketchy outline of what I figured out: You recall that dad turns into whatever he touches. So when he's in the water, he turns into water, then Hulk somehow blows him up into a big water bubble, and the Gamma-nuke vaporizes him. Of course, now the dad is water vapor and spread everywhere, and I don't see how that really solves anything, but that's where they leave it and I'm not asking any questions.
< < < SPOILERS END
I really enjoyed it, up until the 'WTF?' ending. Lee seems to be interested not just in giving us an effects-driven thrill ride, but something with real characters with real histories that takes the themes of this story seriously. Okay—so maybe it turns out that not too many people in the popular audience wanted that, but you have to admire him for turning out something different. Lee and his screenwriters have shifted the focus from the simple, no-one's-fault Gamma burst of the comic to be this whole thing about these two fathers, and the children they have that are caught up in the conflict of their parents. Furthermore, Bruce was actually somewhat abused by his father, who turns out to be no supportive, encouraging dad in the present day. So there's all the heavy psychology about the kids being the victims of their parent's conflicts, and caught up in circumstances created by someone else. I didn't think the movie did all that much to take advantage of the whole idea of this id-fueled, primordial rage, but whatever, it had other virtues.
Chief among these other virtues is Lee's sense of beauty and freedom of movement, which—perhaps this is racist—I somewhat associate with a Chinese aesthetic. He seems interested setting up shots that are intricately beautiful—I'm thinking of the obviously fake but gorgeous tree outside Betty's lake house—and then exploiting the soaring sense of freedom the Hulk experiences—like the lyrical leaping scenes, the battle and fall through the Sequoia treetops, and Hulk's freefall from space—rather than generating awesome explosions or other "cool" sequences. And one appreciates that simply for not seeing that point of view very often. Note how anything not completely generic was completely excised from the "reboot" The Incredible Hulk.
Finally, one just appreciates this movie for not being completely dumb. It has real characters and has put some thought into what resonances the story rings with. It's not The Winter's Tale, but you don't exactly have to put your brain on hold to enjoy it, which, if you have a brain, can be kind of a nice thing. I found it delightful from beginning to, well, ALMOST to the end, and wouldn't have minded if the series continued in this direction. Ah well, it is definitely possible to overestimate your audience.
Sure! It's fun and not completely idiotic!