The Incredible Hulk
A Film Directed and Written by Mark Romanek
The new film from French director Louis Leterrier - his third feature after 2005Õs Jet Li action vehicle Danny The Dog and "soldier-of-fortune" action-film Transporter 2 - is a workmanlike "summer-blockbuster" that provides just under two hours of routine escapist distraction. Unfortunately, in spite of a superior cast and an enormous budget, thatÕs the very best that can be said for it.
The very-talented director Ang Lee made a film about these same characters a mere five years ago,. His film met mixed reviews, with some critics faulting it for failing to deliver on the "action" side and being too slow-paced and introspective for a Comic Book film. After its relatively poor box-office and the wild success of other comic-book-based franchises like the X-Men, Superman, Batman and Spiderman, it seems someone concluded that there was still money to be made from an adaptation.
The Ang Lee version was written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - the Marvel Comics principles who created the character in the first place. But in an instructive display of how a creation has a life of its own, apart from its creators, the introspective, psychologically-complex, morally-ambiguous context Kirby and Lee created for their character was not to the taste of the much more action/special-effects/explosion oriented audience for summer blockbuster movies.
Kirby and Lee revitalized the nearly-moribund world of Comic Books in the mid-1960s by taking them out of the formulaic and simplistic and creating interesting, multi-layered characters whose real-life problems intersected with their fantastic adventures and powers in ways that raised interesting and provocative ethical, moral, psychological and even spiritual questions. They changed the demographic for their Comic Book readers from adolescents and pre-adolescents, to College students and even adults, and carved out a niche-market for themselves where none had previously existed.
However, a niche-market can not a blockbuster sustain - you have to sell many, many thousands of tickets - to a mass audience - to recoup investment in a $137 million dollar film production. The Ang Lee/Kirby/Stan Lee collaboration didnÕt pander to the mass market. Instead, it tried to repeat MarvelÕs strategy of creating an audience of its own by offering an integration of Comic Book melodrama with nuanced socio-political and psychological insight and real character development.
It was a bold approach, but one which was not wildly successful. In spite of millions of dollars of US and international ticket sales (and a $62M opening weekend!), by the time all the various percentages were deducted, The 2003 version didnÕt earn back its investment. So the makers of the current 2008 retreaded version have leaned much more heavily on what has come to be the staple of the "summer-blockbuster" genre: extensive CGI "action" sequences including lots of enormous explosions. This emphasis may make their film more profitable, but it doesnÕt make it a better film.
The sad truth about CGI effects is that there is a quick curve of diminishing returns. When we first saw the dinosaurs running about in Jurassic Park, it seemed pretty cool that someone could create such "life-like" animated fantasy creatures. And the unexpected nature of the technology drew viewers in, with a believable recreation of a fantasy that blended rather seamlessly with the live action.
By the time we get to the 2008 version of The Incredible Hulk, however, the blush is off the rose. Having seen Spiderman/Batman swing from building to building around Manhattan/Gotham City (several times), seeing The Hulk leaping about seems a bit "old hat." And having experienced hours of CGI effects, itÕs difficult not to be pulled out of whatever may pass for a plot and start looking critically at the graphics themselves, rather than paying attention to the film.
So what we get in the new "blockbuster" formula are ever-more-elaborate, sophisticated, detailed CGI sequences loosely tied together with what necessarily becomes mere "filler" or "padding" between them - even despite the filmmakersÕ best intentions. And even that doesnÕt completely work, because audiences quickly become jaded and yesterdayÕs "innovative" and "stunning" effect quickly becomes todayÕs perfunctory artifice.
ItÕs a bit like watching fireworks. When you see one fireworks show a year, it can be beautiful, inspiring, dramatic. But the repertoire of fireworks shows - variations on the theme of "things zoom high into the air, explode, and shower down" - is limited, and if you see five or six in a row, on successive weekends, they progressively run the risk of becoming mere noisy, smelly, repetitive bores.
It doesnÕt help that the screenplay is written by Zak Penn - who is HollywoodÕs "go-to-guy" for "action" Comic Book (and "Comic-Book like") adaptations, having done everything from the disappointing Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Last Action Hero and TV-cartoon-series trope Inspector Gadget to the mega-blockbusting X-Men: The Last Stand. It's hard to have a career like that - so many efforts that are variations on the same theme - without falling into a rut, and Penn has not been able to avoid that pitfall here.
While the dialogue is better than average (lead actor Edward Norton submitted his script revisions for a possible writing credit but was rejected by the WritersÕ Guild), the plot is excitement- and innovation-free. In "high concept," it might be expressed as (stop me if youÕve heard this one): "Monster (or "Superhero" if you prefer) tries to do the right thing; Monster is unjustly thwarted and persecuted; Monster risks everything and achieves redemption; Monster sacrifices personal redemption for the greater good."
There are watchable elements here. The cinematography - particular the combination of hand-held, aerial and tracking shots through the Brazilian favela - is sometimes quite breath-taking. There are moments in the performances - particularly between Norton and his romantic interest Liv Tyler - where issues of trust, risk and support are engaged that are emotionally evocative. But of course, all these subtleties are quickly blown-away in the rush to the next set of building-rocking pyrotechnics.
The production values are uniformly high. They ought to be, given the amount of money lavished on them. But they are background to something that is no more than a shadow-play and despite their best efforts and some real creativity ( a scene in a Brazilian soft-drink bottling plant uses the location with wonderful inventiveness), the moments they enhance are likewise swept away.
Norton, Tyler, and the rest of the acting ensemble, including William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, the always-amazing Tim Roth put their hearts into this effort. The few and far-between moments of real tension and emotion they create are the only real payoffs. But it quickly becomes clear that their considerable talents are being wasted.
This is not a film about characters. It is a film driven by (a very thin) plot - which is then used as an engine to propel the film lurchingly from one CGI sequence to the next and provide enough breathing room for the audience that they donÕt get the (perhaps accurate) impression that what theyÕre watching is little more than a glorified video game (which game was, in fact, released simultaneously with the filmÕs opening!).
ItÕs always disappointing to see such vast resources of money (the cost of this film could have paid for the making of a dozen films on the scale of The Lives of Others or In the Valley of Elah) and talent tossed away on a crass commercial mediocrity like this. But thatÕs life in the Hollywood-Summer-Blockbuster-fast-lane and until we vote with our pocket-books against such nonsense and demand better of our filmmakers and our film industry I guess weÕre stuck with it.
Fortunately, there are still lots of thoughtful, well-made, interesting, challenging films coming out to uphold the reputation of film as a legitimate art form. I hope youÕll seek some of them out and buy a few tickets. I know IÕm going to.
That's my take on it. What's yours?