You know what I like? The movie that tries.

It’s why I can watch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, to name one. It’s by no means a good film, to be sure, but Shatner had big ideas there. Didn’t come off – we all know that – but no one can say they tossed it off to formula.

And Ang Lee’s 2003 stab at the Hulk is now widely perceived as a failure. It received neither favorable reviews nor a high box office return. And there are problems with this movie. It is way more somber and psychologically pretentious than it needs to be. It is nigh-on impossible to visualize this version of the character kicking Loki’s ass and enjoying it.

But really, for all its faults, it had at its heart an earnest and carefully constructed attempt to engage its audience in a genuine human drama rather than a “will-these-explosions-do?” summer cash-grab. And throw into the mix some really superb cinematography, editing and comprehensible action sequences, and Hulk, flaws and all, became one of those rare things: an intelligent blockbuster.

It opens with a crackingly put-together montage of genetic codes and scribbled handwriting. This is the work of David Banner, a military scientist with a porn-star moustache/haircut combo who is attempting to crack the secret of cellular regeneration in humans by cutting up starfish. He’s a Movie Scientist, so naturally injects himself with a spurious substance, and, following the birth of his son Bruce, realises that “something” has been passed on.

Young David Banner - HULK (2003)

The military, clearly unable to tolerate his in-no-way-regulation haircut, terminate his research and throw him in jail for the next 30 years, but not before some horrible event has occurred between David and his wife, which the infant Bruce is unlucky enough to witness.

30 years later, Bruce (Eric Bana) has followed in his father’s footsteps and become a scientist himself, and opted for a much better haircut. He harbours deep repressed memories and works alongside his ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (the daughter of the man who terminated his father’s research), researching the potential of microscopic “nanomed” robots to repair damaged organic material.

They spend their days watching frogs explode until Bruce is accidentally zapped by gamma rays and nanomeds, at which point his father reappears (Nick Nolte, over-acting for humanity in a voice with more cracks than a broken pisspot).

The most immediately noticeable thing about Lee’s film is the comic-book style editing of each scene. There are multiple angles of the same shot on the screen at the same time, combined with freezes, dissolves, and page-turnovers. Ordinary organic objects will slowly take shape on the screen, such as a desert plant, and lead us into the next scene.

It is beautifully dedicated to its own visual language, and looks as close to a comic book as it’s possible to get on the screen without actually being a cartoon. And any film that reminds me of Creepshow gets points on general principle.

The action sequences are punctuated by some quite beautiful shots of the Hulk soaring through the desert, accompanied by a rousing Danny Elfman score and Arabic-style chanting, before he stops to admire something as simple as some colourful moss on a desert boulder. Ang Lee was really not just trying to make an action film, but attempting to add art and lyricism to his story. It often works.

But let’s address the first CG Hulk. Some would say that this Hulk has a puppeteer’s artistry to it that invites you to make an emotional investment. And some would say it looks shit.

Both views are valid. Really, he doesn’t look great. But although his proportions are off and he never convinces as a character in the way that, say, Gollum did in the same year, there is a strange, soulful quality to this Hulk that the later iterations seem to lack.

There are other flaws. The pacing is misjudged. The transformation scenes are pretty comical. It’s nearly an hour before the Hulk actually appears, and often the psychodrama and long pregnant silences can have you looking at your watch. Although Lee’s attempts to inject human drama and emotion into his story are commendable, they ultimately come close to sinking the film.

And the ending is close to incomprehensible. There is a battle, and some effects, and something definitely happened. I’m sure of it. But I’ve never worked out what it is.

Ultimately this is a brave and unconventional attempt to bring a ridiculous concept to the big screen without resorting to wall-to-wall explosions and special effects, and although it requires reserves of patience, there’s a lot to be admired here.

Failure can be glorious – as long as you tried.

Be lucky,

DiamondJoe

Check out some more of my retro reviews here:

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON Review : I Used To Be A Werewolf, But I’m Alright Noooooowww

ALIEN RESURRECTION Review : Ripley, Believe It Or Not

KRULL Review : A Rave To The Glaive

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC Review

29 COMMENTS

  1. Loved this movie since it first came out.

    “Failure can be glorious – as long as you tried”

    I would rewatch this over The Last Jedi anyday. Nick Nolte might not be Luke Skywalker I know, but at least they were true to the characters in this one.

  2. A noble failure. I wish some real directors would be given these franchisers instead of the deadbeat hacks and journeymen we are getting.

  3. I’ll concede “noble failure”. At the same time, I’d say this film is highly skippable unless you are a big fan of Ang Lee or maybe just genre film history.

    Same goes for the far inferior ST5… if I’d never watched it, it would not be a problem.

    • True, no one needs ST5. But I love the interplay between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and the guy playing Sybok was a charismatic dude. If Shatner had’ve stuck to his original plot of actually finding the devil, and his effects budget hadn’t been slashed, he’d have had a game.

  4. Yeah it left a lil’ mark so the psychological angle was appreciated. A strange comic book movie in that pre-MCU, XMEN/Spiderman era.

  5. I felt the fighting sequences were among the best parts of the movie. When Hulk fought the mutant dogs it was brutal and “real”. When Hulk attacked the tank on the sand dunes, he thought about what he was doing. These were highlights. I also liked that Ang Lee tried to use biology and physics in his Hulk. When Hulk starts to turn into Banner, there is steam emanating from the body as his energetic state changes. Some might find that a silly detail, but I liked the logic behind it.

    I did not like the comic book frames and still images that transformed into comic imagery. Those panels annoyed me for taking me out of the otherwise realistic aspects of the movie.

  6. When I was 7 years old I used to play Hulk with my Uncle who could catch a striking rattlesnake. He would pretend to be angry and make me touch him until part of him got bigger.

  7. i wonder what the current state of comic book films would be like if this style had caught on. minus the mutant poodles, which gets overblown like everything else anyway, it’s a pretty solid film…

  8. I’ve always liked this movie, not a classic, but watchable. Should have ended right when he walks up to Betty and returns to normal. The whole fight at the end was totally unnecessary and ruins the rest of the film.

  9. Remember going to this movie and really enjoying it. Haven’t seen it in a decade or so but very much remember liking it.

  10. I made the mistake of renting this and showing it to some young nieces and nephews who were visiting, about a year after it came out… I got lots of stink-eye looks for the remainder of their stay.

  11. I vaguely recall a review calling this “the thinking man’s” Hulk. I can’t say I really appreciated it much at the time, but might need to revisit this movie again. Nice review DiamondJoe.

  12. I will be a dissenting opinion, but I truly loved this movie. I liked how Lee put some solid psychological trauma to Hulk and Hulk’s dad was truly a menace. He gave Banner some legit PTSD. Connelly was a beautiful and well played Betty Ross, and Sam Elliot was wonderful as General Ross (wish he was in the MCU, he’s a great actor. William Hurt is great too… I just prefer Sam Elliot.)

    The only thing I didn’t care for is how BIG they made the hulk. He should be about 7, 7 1/2 feet tall tops. Not friggin’ 10-15 feet tall! Too big! (He was a little too day glo green as well, but that’s a nitpick).

    I’ve watched it like 3-4 times. The fight with the military is wonderful, the best Hulk battle scene yet… and that was in 2003.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here