I have this rule that drives my friends nuts; that I will not talk about a movie for 24 hours after I've first seen it. However, in the case of the new movie Hulk, I will make an exception.
Writing movie reviews is a balancing act. On one hand, you have to talk about the film you're writing about, but you don't want to give away important details, so people will be surprised. The key to this movie is expectations. What movie you think you're going to will in large part determine how much you enjoy it.
If you've been paying attention to my movie columns you'll know I put large stock in who the director is. In the case of Hulk, we're talking Ang Lee. Lee has made some of the most celebrated movies of the past decade, including The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, and Ride With the Devil. His 1995 film Sense and Sensibility should have won Best Picture over a very good Braveheart, and his 2000 masterpiece Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of my very favorite films.
So obviously I like the guy. But even if these aren't your favorite films-or you've never even seen them-I list them for a reason. Lee is known for making psychological dramas, what some might call "art house" films. He doesn't eschew action, but uses it to punctuate the drama rather than replace it.
And that's what he does in Hulk. This is not one of those park-your-mind-at-the-door popcorn flicks. This is definitely not your typical super hero movie. This is a very dense drama, and very character important. Batman had a little bit of depth, but mostly relied on the action and style and the great characters. Spider-Man didn't have a whole lot of depth, but still gave us a little pop psychology. The X-Men films have virtually zero depth. And that's okay, because these films never pretended to be anything other than what they were.
But Hulk is trying. You're going to be staggered at the amount of information Lee gives us in two and half hours. Much more than any comic book movie I've ever seen. The first 15 minutes are pure exposition/back story, starting before Bruce Banner (Hulk's alter ego) is even born!
But I don't want to give you the idea this is Sophie's Choice or something, because it's not. Lee does recognize that for all the depth the characters have, it's still a comic book. He does an admirable job of keeping that mentality. We get camera angles that suggest comic-book shots, split screens, wipes, and all sorts of neat things. Lee also does something rather unique, by showing us the psychological and biological changes that occur in our hero by animating it, in what I can only describe as a "visual onomatopoeia." (I think I just made up that term.) I can't really explain it more than that, but you'll see what I mean.
For those of you who know next-to-nothing about the Hulk saga, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is a Doctor working in a research lab on gamma radiation and how it might help the body regenerate itself. His lab partner is Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, whom some of you might recognize from A Beautiful Mind), also his on-again-off-again-on-again love interest. Believe me when I say, both of these people have issues, and you need look no further than Daddy.
For Banner, we know more about his past than he does. As I wrote before, the movie starts with his father-also a scientist-and gives us many details in young Bruce's life, of which he remembers nothing. This actually happens in large part over the credits, and unlike most movies, this is important stuff, so pay attention. This lengthy exposition may be a bit tough for some, but stick with it. There is a huge emotional payoff for knowing (some) of what happened to him. I don't want to say more, in case you don't know all the details, so you'll be surprised, but what you need to know is that Bruce Banner can't remember anything from his childhood (he doesn't even go by Banner now, or even know he is a Banner), and that Bruce has anger issues.
Betty Ross isn't much better. Her father (played under control by Sam Elliot) is a 4 star general and a very hard, distant, emotionally closed man. This is partly why Betty is attracted to Bruce, since he's much the same way.
The reason I tell you so much about these two is that their issues form the nexus for this movie. You have to understand Bruce Banner's past to understand his present state. Lee wants us to see what the comic book intended but is hard to express in graphic form: that the Hulk persona is a manifestation of rage the Bruce-and by extension, all of us-feels. In other words, if you read Harry Potter and never really wonder at the connection between Harry and Voldemort, you're going to be disappointed here. If you see Star Wars as just an action series and not en epic tale of father and son, you're better off not even attempting this movie.
In this way Hulk is very much like a classic monster movie, where the "beast" is misunderstood and an outcast from society. Don't get me wrong, when Bruce turns into Hulk he's not composing poetry, but as you'll see, he's not completely mindless, either.
Speaking of monster movies, if you're into that sort of thing, you can count how many movie references Lee puts in. I got 8, and seeing it again would probably bring up more. The Hulk comic owes its origin to a cross between Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. You can certainly see that here. I was almost more reminded of Jaws, however. In that film, the monster is rarely seen, especially at the beginning, and his eventual appearance has a greater impact.
And that's what Lee tries to do here. The scenes with the Hulk are pretty limited, which will no doubt disappoint those who are just looking for nothing but action. But to me, it makes the action more special, that it doesn't happen that often. Again, think of Crouching Tiger, where the fight scenes emphasize the emotions of the drama, and are so beautiful they are almost poetry. That's what you have here, if you can call tearing a monster poodle apart poetic (and I can).
What else do you need to know? The ending isn't what you think it is; so don't mentally disengage once you think you've seen the climax. Also, it definitely gets more engrossing and cool as it goes along. I don't mean the beginning is boring, but it's so exposition-heavy that you can be forgiven if you get a bit antsy.
For those of you who have read my #121, you know my rating system. The Skepticism scale has to be split. On one hand, we're talking about a man who turns into a 10-20 feet tall green monster (depending on how mad he gets) and smashes things. Rosie O'Donnell aside, that's unrealistic, and gets a 9 out of 10. However, the emotions behind everything are very real. Lee tries to show us fathers who try to control their children, and the effect that has on the kids, and does a pretty good job, so I'd only give that a 3.
For the Genre Grade, I'd again split this. If you're judging a straight comic book action movie, Hulk would only get a B or B-. The animation is good, especially since you know it's not real. By the end, I defy you to sit there and think it isn't natural. And Hulk's face is more expressive than any computer character I've seen this side of Gollum. However, there isn't a whole lot of action, there's lots of talking, and there's not even women in skin-tight suits! If you're putting this in the drama category, though, I'd have to give it an A. As a drama, this will blow you away with incredible action scenes to compliment the psychology. Unfortunately, I doubt very many people will go see this expecting a psychodrama. But at least you will.
Finally, the Pantheon Percentile has to be foregone for now. I need to see this movie at least once more before I put it in the annals of movie history. I will say this though: I had goose bumps for an hour after I saw it. I've been roaring at anyone who called all day. And I can't wait to see it again.