It’s a credit to director Ang Lee that you watch Bay Area scientist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) transform into fifteen feet of tumescent green rage and think past the obvious question: Why don’t Bruce’s purple pants split when he balloons to Hulk size? Talk about indecent exposure. Sadly, it’s Hulk the movie that bursts at the seams. Lee, the Taiwanese master behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, pours art, ardor and ambition into transforming the Marvel comic and TV series (1978 to 1982) into a film with its own dark heart, but his ideas can’t find a center that will hold.
That said, there is still much to keep you riveted. Despite all the bitching on the Web that the computer-generated Hulk looks, well, computer generated, the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic, led by Dennis Muren, give their green giant a wide range of expression, from tenderness to full tantrum. It’s the Hulk’s body that seems to lack heft, especially when he’s bouncing around the desert like a jolly green beach ball. In angry mode, the Hulk is on firmer ground. In one scene, he takes on three killer dogs, including a mutant French poodle, and their scary battle has the grit and grandeur of something out of King Kong.
Like the lovesick ape, the Hulk pines for a beauty. She is Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), also a scientist. Betty has broken up with Bruce, another of what she calls her “emotionally distant men.” Her father, Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott, bringing surprising depth to a clichéd role), the keeper of military secrets, keeps her at a brusque remove.
Lee’s movie, which his longtime collaborator James Schamus (The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil) reworked from a script by John Turman and Michael France, is obsessed with fathers. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Bruce is the child of David Banner (Nick Nolte), a scientist who performed genetic experiments on his own son. Bruce has repressed these memories. It’s only when a lab accident exposes him to gamma radiation that Bruce’s anger spills out and takes the form of the Hulk.
Bana, the Aussie star of Chopper and Black Hawk Down, brings a simmering power to the role. Of course, CGI takes over for Bana when the Hulk smashes everything in sight, from tanks and helicopters to much of San Francisco. Cool stuff. But Bana finds the character’s tragic dimension. It’s Nolte, laboring under the impression that he’s playing King Lear as a mad scientist, who pushes the psychological subtext too hard and spoils the fun.
Lee wants to do everything with this film. He rubs archetypes together to create a mythic spark. He uses Danny Elfman’s music, which channels Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, to blur illusion and reality. With the expert help of cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) and editor Tim Squyres (Gosford Park), he splits the screen into comic-book panels that lay out the world in psychic splinters.
Lee’s technique is impeccable, but he’s chasing more inner demons than one creature feature can handle. No wonder the audience cheers when TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno shows up for a cameo. It’s a reminder of a time when it was easier being green and a Hulk could just get pissed off and bust shit up.