Though its trailers suggested a special-effects blockbuster, 2003's Hulk turned out to be a dramatic tale of a boy who loved his mommy and hated his daddy. It is unmistakably the work of Ang Lee, who infused a genre film with a depth of character that, while not as much a labor-of-love as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (1999), is still an A-level Lee film. Hulk brings to the screen one of the first true comic book films based on a licensed property. The unfortunate side effect, of course, is that the movie was met with mixed reviews some media pundits ignored the consistency of theme in Lee's work, as if they were expecting Michael Bay's "The Hulk." Viewers weren't ready for the contemplative nature of the film's first act, as the familiar story of Bruce Banner's (Eric Bana) transformation caused by a blast of gamma radiation was augmented by the revelation that the trauma only served as the release of a lifetime of pent-up emotions, as well as the results of scientific experimentation passed on from his father. The film may as well have been called Id it's as close to a psychodrama as a comic-book movie could aspire to be. The tale of an abandoned son, unknowingly following in his father's footsteps and longing after a girl who is the unconscious representation of his mother, is a long way from the "things get smashed real good" movie people apparently were hoping for. Banner and his recent ex-lover Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) are working on a technology known as "Nano Meds," which attempts to speed up the healing process, but one fateful day Banner is exposed to gamma rays that, when angry, trigger his growth into a large green Id-beast that destroys at will. Here, the concept that differs from the comic-book origins (along the lines of Spider-Man's organic web-shooters or Daredevil's stylish fetish-wear), but it provides a means of explaining a concept for cinema what normally is the singular cause of the change from human to super-human is presented here merely as the release of powers that lie dormant. Banner's father David (Nick Nolte) firmly believes that the results of Bruce's experimentation are in fact his true son, not the human flesh that lies on the outside. The elder Banner once wanted to either kill or cure his son, but after 30 years in a mental institution he is now driven to harness the dormant power for his own ends. Betty's father, U.S Army Gen. Ross (Sam Elliot), is as emotionally distant as Bruce and seeks only to protect his daughter from inside the military system he serves. With these two powerful forces after him, Bruce must use his powers to flee from harm and stay close to the woman he loves.
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The fundamental difference between Hulk and other comic-book movies is that this is not the tale of a super-hero, but of a tragic monster. With a lone exception that seems almost contrived to provide at least one heroic moment neither Banner nor his gigantic alter-id are in a position to save the world from some evil mastermind. While it's certain that the Absorbing Man creature that David becomes would probably be a villain were he to succeed in taking on the Hulk's powers, the final confrontation has a personal context that places it above the standard desire of a super-hero to best the would-be evildoer. He is instead faced with his father, and this kind of tragedy and personal struggle isn't often found in pop-genre fare. Regardless of its merits as a study on familial relations or abandonment issues, the fact remains that without a believable Hulk, the film would not have worked. What ILM has accomplished here is on par with WETA's work on Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films. Lee himself put on the motion-capture suit, and the result is a creature that perfectly embodies the rage contained in Banner's psyche. When Hulk makes his first appearance, it's a cathartic release of pent-up rage, and the film earns it with its quiet build up over the first 40 minutes. Everything about the creature, from the layers of facial expression to the quality of skin textures, hair, and muscle construction, are combined here to create a believable CG construct that is easy to cheer for and sympathize with. Tim Squyres' editing is driven by a "paneling" technique that takes the notion of capturing the comic book form to a new level. The tight moving panels are complemented by Fredrick Elmes' beautiful photography to create a stunning visual palette. Danny Elfman's score works well within the context of the film, and the main theme is one of the better ones in the recent glut of comic-to-film adaptations. Combine these factors with the performances turned in by the cast from Bana's brooding Bruce to Nolte's over-the-top David and we have what may be the most adept entry into the current rush to bring comic books to the screen. Hulk dares to explore the complex subtext that motivates the actions of its main character, and fans of both film and the genre are better off for it.
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Universal presents Hulk in an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Ang Lee provides a feature-length commentary, and there are several features on the creation of the film's special effects. "Hulk-Cam" offers on-the-fly links during the movie that allow the viewer to pop over to a "making-of" piece on whatever special effect is on screen at the time. A piece on the film's editing focuses on the paneling of shots. Several deleted scenes are included that were cut for good reasons. And an artist's interpretation section reveals something that could have been interesting: It has a sequence from the movie ("Banner vs. Talbot") interpreted by four separate comic-book artists. Had the feature simply shown their art in still, instead of frantically showing panels as the score from the scene plays in the background, it might have been something. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.