Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ang Lee's Hulk: An Appreciation

The Hulk is the best Super-Hero film Stanley Kubrick never made. It’s pretentious, over-long, occasionally exciting, and endlessly fascinating. Watching the film, one can almost see a madly cackling Ang Lee, naked and sweating in an editing room, slapping this puppy together.

Not that one wishes to see this.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Hulk as the living embodiment of atomic rage in an atomic age; a meek scientist in the tradition of Doctor Jeckyl transformed into a monstrous Hyde by the power of the Gamma bomb. Lee takes this nifty concept and does something at once completely self-destructive and breathtakingly brave: he ignores it. Lee’s Hulk is not the child of the atom, but the Oedipal child of Greek myth writ large in primary colors (Minus the creepy incest).

In Lee and Kirby’s original, Bruce Banner was exposed to “MASSIVE!” amounts of Gamma radiation while saving a ridiculous harmonica-playing kid from a just-about-to-blow testing site by…throwing him into a ditch. Its fears were very much of its age. Radiation gone wild…the government setting off bombs in tests that had unforeseen circumstances.
But the harmonica-guy-in-peril and the whole throwing him in a ditch thing would seem pretty lame to us jaded 21st century moviegoers, so, understandably, the movie sets out to update the origin a bit.

It wouldn’t have taken much. Given just how much scary, intimidating science is just rattling around out there, just about anything could have explained Banner’s transformation. Gamma rays still work fine, gene manipulation's very popular, self-replicating nano-tech seems to fade in and out of vogue, man-made viruses are ALWAYS favorite. Hell, the horrors of the “atomic age” seem almost playful now.

But rather than picking one, Lee just tosses all of them into the pot and hits puree, adding things wholly-unnecessary and completely bizarre. Somehow, Starfish, lizards, jellyfish, lichen and beechwood trees play into the creation of the Hulk.

How they all come into play, exactly, is something I’m not sure of. In fact, the means by which Banner eventually Hulks out are so ludicrously complex that they cease to matter. Banner’s father (the never-better-never-will-be-better Nick Nolte) has experimented on himself. Somehow. With starfish and lichen. Or something. It's all helpfully glossed over in a strange, "Se7en"esque credits sequence that combines rotating recombinant strings of dna with impaled sea life and close-up's of starfish mutilation.

Nolte has a son named Bruce who’s weirdly autistic and gets random green blotches on his skin that no one but his father seems to notice. Then his son grows up to work with nanites, or some other bio-technology, which, again, is never realy explained. Somehow, Bruce Banner (the mysteriously constipated Eric Bana) ends up in a sealed chamber with a bunch of nanites and “MASSIVE!” amounts of gamma radiation and an anonymous lab technician.

And he saves the other guy with him by…standing in front of the machine giving off the gamma rays. Ah, progress.

But the above gives the impression that the movie is terrible. Which it isn’t. At least, not in the conventional, unwatchable sense. Lee’s (Ang, not Stan) origin is pretty terrible. Over-long and pedestrian when it should be short, snappy, and thrilling. What follows the origin, however, is a work of literally Kubrick-ian proportions. An art film disguised as a comic book. The most loopy, nutty experience I've had with a movie since 2001.

For openers the film is a visual wonder. The film deserved a best editing statue at Oscar time, and it’s a crime that it wasn’t nominated. This isn’t hyperbole. Lee and his compatriots created a new and revolutionary look in the film – the living comic book. Multiple panels emerge and disappear, guiding your eye, the camera itself lifts “away” from the screen, over an entire “page” of separate camera shots from various points in the films narrative, then resettles again for the next scene. The sharp greens shoots of a desert plant invade a previous scene one by one until the rest of the scene falls away behind it. The film does this with a quiet, usually unshowy confidence that astounds.

One of the few places where this style shoves itself front and center in the film is in the death of Talbot (Josh Lucas, in a needlessly cartoonish performance). A gas tank explodes behind him, and as Talbot is thrust forward in the rush of igniting air, he literally freezes and grows a border around him, a panel straight out of a comic book. I’d argue that it’s at this point that the movie either derails entirely for people (rather inexplicable, given the desert Hulk scenes immediately following) or becomes, as it did for me, a work of deranged art.

It’s after Talbot does his kooky freeze that the film shifts into one of the most well-executed and thrilling effects sequences I’ve ever seen. The Hulk’s escape from the Military base, his subsequent run through the desert, and his landing in San Francisco is simply incredible. The effects team that brought the Hulk to life infuses him nearly seamlessly into broad-daylight scenes and makes him a believable character, not simply a cartoon ala Jar Jar. The facial work alone in the film is astounding. Years after the film’s release, it still looks state-of-the-art and pleasantly organic.

There are countless moments during this section of the film that makes one long for a different picture; From the Hulk sitting and contemplating the lichen on a desert rock, to the Hulk patting the muzzle of a tank in his palm like a gangster with a baseball bat, to his giant, bounding leaps that take him hurtling through the sky til he’s a dark speck in the eye of the camera. If Lee had been able to step outside himself long enough, would he have realized that the tone of those scenes was the same tone necessary for the rest of the film? We’ll never know.

And while we’re praising, let us all bow at the altar of Nick Nolte; who elevates the role of Banner’s bad dad into something Shakespearean. I have never seen a performance like the one Nolte gives on this movie. No. I lie. Once, I saw a film with two performances as gloriously, motherfucking GOOFY as the one Nolte gives here. That film was The Island of Doctor Moreau. Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, you are remembered, sirs.

Still, the point remains. Nolte is riveting. He seems to be wandering in from some other, far more interesting part of the universe, looking much like his now-infamous mugshot and giving the most out-there, bug-shit crazy performance I’ve seen since…well, the Island of Doctor Moreau. That one has to be seen to be believed. There’s a midget who does everything Marlon Brando does…and Brando’s all Kabuki’d out and wearing Mumu’s and Kilmer’s just…fey and strange and off in ways that should make small children frightened. But this is about the Hulk, dammit.

Nolte turns out to be Bruce’s father. He has three vicious dogs, including a poodle, which he manages to make into giant, snarling Hulk dogs with bewildering ease, considering the long, long, very-too-long string of events that led to Bruce’s Hulking out.

Nolte Hulks himself out as well, towards the end of the picture, except that for no real discernable reason, he becomes the Absorbing Man. In the comic, the Absorbing Man, for those who collected baseball cards, is Crusher Creel, a “tough” (read: bald and shirtless) convict that can “absorb” the properties of anything he touches. This meant that he could touch steel and become steel, or rock, and become rock, therefore allowing him to brawl with Mssr. Hulk with some semblance of comic book credulity. How Nolte, who has done exactly the same things to himself that Bruce did to become the Hulk, somehow gains those powers is never explained.

Nolte’s zenith in the film, and indeed, his career, comes when he’s led, chained, to talk to Bruce between two giant electro-magnets, designed to fry them both should they “try anything.” The gonzo, go-for-broke acting style Nolte deploys here is one part Method, one part medicinal, and one part believable insanity. Nolte basically melts down on-camera, eventually literally chewing the scenery as he tears into a power cable with his teeth.

Nolte tells Banner that he’s not there to see him, he’s there to see “my son. My real son. The one inside of you.You’re nothing but a superficial shell. A husk of flimsy consciousness, ready to be torn off at a moment’s notice.” He also reveals that while he’s been altered like Banner, he is “unstable.” He needs Banner’s strength. And its at this point that the film, which has by now been a dull drama, an underwritten love story, and a solid and occasionally breathtaking special effects picture leaps forward and becomes something utterly strange and beautiful.

Nolte tears into that cable like a rabid groundhog. As his body ignites with borrowed power, he turns to his son, a victim and carrier of the rage of his father, and the two of them duke it out, in the time honored manner of fathers and sons. But they do it in the most obliquely impressionistic and near surrealistic way possible.
They appear in clouds, flashes of form; as a giant jellyfish floating in the desert, made of water. As his father drains his power, demanding his son give him, in essence, his life, Banner screams for him to take it all, and it becomes too much, ending the father and (for the moment) cleansing the son. It’s all very Oedipal and quasi-deepish, especially for a film starring a 14 foot green CGI behemoth that doesn’t speak. Shrek’s got nothing on the Hulk’s thematic depth when the film is in its final minutes.

That what finally defeats Nolte, in all his towering animated fury, is his son’s boundless, bottomless rage toward him and what he’s done to him, is enough for me to want to buy Ang Lee a drink or two and talk about his father issues. It’s also enough to make me want to write about a movie I walked out initially deriding.

Those final, haunting minutes speak mountains about rage, repression, the eternal dance of parents and children, and does it in a way that is artful, abstract, and utterly mystifying. It steers the movie home and makes the ride worth the trip, despite the strangeness of the journey. Spider-Man 2, X2 and Hellboy have all shown us that great, entertaining, mature-ish movies can be made about super heros, because, after all, they are modern myth. Lee’s film isn’t as good or as entertaining as any of them. It's uneven in tone, too subdued by far, and dull in places. But in the release of the desert sequences, and the comic to mythic finale, the film attains something artful, something worthy of respect. You know, for a comic book flick.

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