Friday, June 13, 2008

Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

While Ang Lee's mangled epic is still not quite a good film, Hulk is a fascinating failure, and an interesting artistic experiment. It is challenging, thoughtful, and adult. Its main flaws are its length, it's suspense-less action (it's immediately established that Hulk won't kill anyone and we know no one will kill the Hulk), and it's screenplay which constantly tells us about its characters issues instead of showing us.

But what still stands out is its remarkable visual style, which uses split-screen to create living comic book panels and uses bright, bold colors to tell a somber, sorrowful tale. Plus, there is a refreshing maturity and realism to how the characters talk to one another. Betty Ross and Bruce Banner (Jennifer Connelly and Eric Bana) obviously have a history, both romantically and professionally. They are very close friends, equals in the scientific realm, and they interact with each other in an unforced manner that sells their complicated relationship. The relationship between the leads and their respective fathers (Sam Elliot's General Ross and Nick Nolte's David Banner) feels naturally embittered as well, even if the plot gets silly. These are real people thrust into this comic book situation and the drama feels potent, even if the action never does.

Now we have The Incredible Hulk, which brings literal meaning to the phrase: "Dumbed Down".

Obligatory Spoiler Warning...

The Incredible Hulk
114 minutes

With Marvel terrified of anything resembling the adult, meditative character drama that Lee gave them five-years ago, we have a new version that is actually far worse of a picture. Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, and William Hurt are thin and cardboard, where Bana, Connelly, and Elliot were complicated. William Hurt gives one of the worst performances of his career, as he can't decide how villainous or compassionate his character should be.

The action is frantic and difficult to follow, where as the original had an odd, poetic elegance to its major set-pieces. The special effects are better, I suppose, but the effect that they create is not the least bit special. There is no beauty, no sense of discovery and wonder in this new Hulk picture. There is no tragedy because we don't care about these people. This is assembly-line film making which is intended to appeal to the lowest-common denominator of comic book fans. It's for those who prefer Super Friends to Justice League.

The story is basically that of a chase picture, with elements from the original Hulk TV show, tossed in with the original Fugitive. Banner hides out, Banner gets found, Banner Hulks out and escapes, lather rinse, repeat. This film is not specifically a sequel to the Ang Lee picture. Yet it trots out the origin story in the opening 150 seconds, and then expects the audience to be invested in these characters in a manner that suggest that we've seen them in a prior film.

The film contains far less concentrated action than the previews would have you believe, and the first set-piece, which concludes the first (and best) act, is a direct steal from Batman Begins. But while Batman Begins used the 'Batman as monster in the shadows' as a set-up for a crowd-pleasing pay-off (even one that aped Burton's opening scene in Batman), there is no real climax for Incredible Hulk's shadowy showdown. Even the much anticipated climactic smack down between The Hulk and The Abomination (Tim Roth is bored here, and I don't blame him) is mostly foreplay, with much of the running time dealing with set-ups to fighting (ie - Hulk and Abomination run at each other, Hulk and Abomination get ready to strike) rather than actual fighting (I'd wager the Metropolis smash-up in Superman II has more combat). It doesn't help that the fight almost immediately leaves the crowded city streets and begins to resemble the far superior climactic fight of the first Spider-Man (that fight had real stunt work and real stakes).

More troublesome than the lack of jeopardy is the absolute lack of chemistry between Norton and Tyler. This is where the neutering of the material is most obvious. In Ang Lee's film, the relationship between Banner and Ross was messy, complicated, and adult. There were hints of romantic discord, the tinniest hint of past abuse, but they truly loved each other as human companions and friends. Jennifer Connelly's Betty Ross was a completely three-dimensional character with her own wants and goals, her own ideas and ambitions, and her own demons. Not so here.

Liv Tyler's Betty Ross is only a love interest, a prize to be won in a battle between her boyfriend and her father. She is reduced to the most conventional sort of love interest, existing only to drop her life to aid her long-lost lover without the slightest regard, making moon eyes at her man because the story gives her nothing else to do. She literally has not a line of dialogue for the first thirty-seven minutes, and almost none of her dialogue is anything other than the usual 'No!', 'Don't hurt him!', and 'Help!' variety. While Connelly was an intelligent and independent scientist, Tyler is never once shown doing anything scientific, and it's almost impossible to believe that she is an educator. Jessica Alba's Sue Storm from the Fantastic Four films is a more credible scientific genius, since we actually see her partaking in science from time to time. Even for this genre, the thin and empty role given to the female lead is rather pathetic. Apparently, and this is the disturbing part, making a film more appealing to the masses means not allowing 'the girl' to be anything other than 'a girl'.

Of course, as I referenced the other day, I can only wonder what the deleted footage contains. Does it give Betty Ross a life of her own? Does it give more background to General Ross? Hopefully there is more footage of Betty's current boyfriend, Ty Burrell, who's lone scene with Hurt is the best scene in the film (it's one of the few where adults act like adults). What is left is proof that Norton and director Louis Letterier were right in their fight with Marvel, a losing battle alas. This is the film Marvel wanted: a shorter, character-less, and allegedly action-packed ode to dumb. And, in hindsight, it's a good thing that Norton and Letterier's fights went public, because now no one can blame them for this unfortunate result. It's so thin and so dumb that it is actually far more boring than the admittedly bloated 2003 Hulk. Ironically, this just proves Roger Ebert's old rule: no good film is ever too long and no bad film is ever too short. Even at it's truncated 110 minute running time, The Incredible Hulk is much too long.

Grade: C-

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