4/2/09

The size of thoughts

Ang Lee's Hulk is all about size: the size of atoms and cells; DNA and man; man and his dreams; man and the monster. The director telegraphs this by chopping between shots of mossy rock and entire deserts, literally finding the earth in a grain of sand. Oliver Stone pulled a similar trick in Nixon (1995) by cutting between footage of multiplying cancer cells and bombs dropping on Vietnam, but the visual analogy unbalanced the film: by making his point about life, death and a generation's political and military creep (sic) in two shots, Stone wrapped things up too early.

Arriving as it has within months of the Gulf War, the green monster raging unchallenged in the desert risks being similarly reduced. Hulk really does signpost it, smashing out of a huge American "Victory" flag. But the connection between the rampaging monster and the monster of war is no more specific than that between the radioactive Godzilla and the themes of post-war industrialised Japan. Hulk is a good old monster movie, even if deconstructionists might be distracted the unstoppable man-child who swells and hardens when provoked by men but shrinks to a limp heap when confronted by the woman he loves... in San Francisco.

The alabaster Jennifer Connolly tames the jade Eric Bana a couple of times, reinforcing a beauty and the beast theme mostly absent from the comic. The movie also borrows ideas from Frankenstein (when Hulk sees his reflection in a lake), Jekyll and Hyde (as Banner becomes gradually consumed by his alter ego) and King Kong (when he is hunted down). Even the mutant dogs - which should be fierce - hark back to the sad test lab Labradors of The Fly II. The hell hounds are a result of animal experiments by Banner's father (Nick Nolte) and a disconsolate image. In films, cruelty to animals usually signals a lack of imagination and empathy that will trip a director up somewhere down the line (e.g. Guy Ritchie). Audiences around the world were non-plussed by the sight of dead humans in Starship Troopers (1997) but booed a dog's death and cheered on the bugs. There are a lot of (variable) reasons for this but it mostly has something to do with a sense of fair play and not whaling on the dumb innocent which - whoops - Hulk is mostly about.

Such fundamental inhumanities prevent Hulk ever really leaving the ground. (Although he skips good, the squadron of animators assigned to the running sequences win the day.) It's the paradox of monster movies that no matter who or what they destroy, audiences want the big (read: little) guy to prevail. I suspect the man in suit Godzilla (1954) works because it looks fake: the audience knows Godzilla isn't really getting hurt. Man in suit Godzilla also has a nice smile - just like the T-rex in Jurassic Park (1993) - which shows that he is enjoying himself. It will be interesting to see how Peter Jackson handles it in King Kong. In the original (and subsequent remakes) the ape is adbucted, exploited, hunted down and killed. It's a miserable fate for any animal, and the love of a tiny woman is no consolation.

The tiny woman in Hulk is Jennifer Connelly, A Scientist. While Eric Bana is pumped up digitally, Jennifer has morphed by simply not eating. Despite the distortion she remains a limpid Sargent vision throughout, jolting the audience awake every now and then by grinning or letting her hair spill over one eye. Bana huffs well but his comedy chops show when he's playing the nerd: he always seems to be on the point of making a joke. And there are some other actors in the movie who play characters who chase the Hulk and some guy who oversteps the mark and gets killed and so on. The usual suspects.

The movie ends with the now-standard Marvel / DC showdown between two large computer-generated animations. "They're absorbing ambient energy!" Jennifer gasps, introducing a fascinating concept all too late in the movie. What were she and her colleagues scientists of, exactly? They seem to be studying everything on their iMacs: frogs! gamma rays! stuff! -- the world-in-the-grain-of-sand concept again. The original Hulk comics kept it simple: mild guy / bombarded with gamma rays / becomes monster. The stories were about Newtonian cause and effect, and it's no coincidence therefore that the best parts of the film are those when the Hulk hits things and they break. He's digital, as are most of the things he fights: the visceral made real by computer technicians. It's the ultimate revenge of the nerd.

(Muse Lounge, 2003)