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Gods and Monsters

Riding the coattails of Father’s Day, here comes The Hulk, a tale so loaded with oedipal conflict one half-expects to see “From a story by Sigmund Freud” in the opening credits. Though the immediate generic ancestor of Ang Lee’s brainiac monster movie is the comic book, whose heroes have duked it out with all manner of bad dads for generations, The Hulk bends the knee before an illustrious lineage of male crisis, from King Kong back through Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even to the ultimate fire-breathing father figures, the Greek gods. In the old myths, unsatisfactory fathers did robust things to their sons, like kill them or take away their manhood. In The Hulk, they mess with their genes.

The movie opens in a laboratory on a military base somewhere in America, where an ambitious young scientist named David Banner (Paul Kersey) is fastidiously slicing up starfish, snakes, mollusks and the like. Instead of sautéing them for lunch like any other self-respecting yupster, Banner injects their genetic material into his own body, to be passed on, later, into that of his baby son, Bruce. Neither one of them turns into a mutant giant shrimp — this is, after all, an Ang Lee movie — though each, in his way, is now wired for monstrosity.

Years later, we find young Bruce, played by Australian actor Eric Bana — cast, one concludes, more for his admirable pecs and an attention-getting performance in 2000’s Chopper than for his fortuitous surname — overachieving as a geneticist in a Berkeley laboratory and pretending not to smart over being dumped, for failure to emote, by his equally gifted scientist girlfriend, Betty (Jennifer Connelly). A shared past, dimly remembered by the intuitive Betty and efficiently repressed by Bruce, who was raised by an adoptive mother, binds the two as surely as their do-gooding joint research on something ominous called nano-meds. When Bruce acts decisively to save a colleague’s life after a lab accident, he’s blasted by enough gamma rays to kill 10 men. Instead, this makes him stronger and angrier, causing him to turn that special shade of green and blow up to 15 feet tall. The ever-unflappable Betty guesses that it’s not just genetic hanky-panky that’s pumping up the man she still loves, but his rage and hurt over an early trauma he can’t or won’t remember. She prescribes a little recovered memory, and, as luck would have it, a furtive new lab janitor shows up to reveal himself as David Banner (Nick Nolte, sporting a ’do clearly inspired by the bad hair he wore on the day of his famous DUI arrest), far from dead, as his son had presumed, and still mad as a hatter and with no clearer sense of personal boundaries for having spent several decades in jail. It turns out that David was busted for unprofessional conduct all those years ago by none other than Betty’s father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (implacable Sam Elliott), a distant dad who’s been too busy running the military-industrial complex to attend to his daughter, and who now appears every bit as interested in the ordnance potential of the new and improved Bruce as he is in nailing the young scientist’s dad. David will have none of this. When he first sees Bruce in Hulk form, he reaches out and strokes his massive green cheek, a gesture at once witty, malevolent and ineffably sad. He’s created a monster, his own true self and, he insists, his son’s. Bruce grows ever greener, taller and even more enraged. In such combustible circumstances, the only outstanding questions are which city skyline will take a pounding now that tall Manhattan buildings are off-limits, whether soldiers or scientists make better candidates for the new villainy, and whether the Hulk can remain a verdant über-being while getting in touch with his sensitive male.

 

Stan Lee’s Hulk, like all his superheroes, was a self-doubting chap overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the job (though I doubt whether Spider-Man was ever meant to be as weak-kneed as Tobey Maguire’s hopelessly insipid Peter Parker). One would expect the tenderhearted Ang Lee to go the same route. Instead, he shows a mischievous appreciation for the subversive pleasures of letting the id out to play. In truth, the Hulk — up until a truly daft coda grafted onto the end of the movie as a kind of social-service afterthought — is not that dedicated a do-gooder. He’s at war with himself and the father within him, but he also enjoys being the Hulk. “When I lose control, I like it,” Bruce confesses to Betty after a particularly energetic rampage. Who wouldn’t, given the chance to go boing-boing-boing across deserts, leaping from one canyon to the next while swinging Army tanks around like toy cars and laying waste to military installations?

Whether he’s a creature who will strike sufficient terror into the hearts of sensation-hungry audiences is another story. No doubt Ang Lee was hired to direct The Hulk because he has proved both his action chops (if not with the ill-conceived Ride With the Devil, then certainly with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) while turning in soulful family dramas (The Wedding Banquet, among others) that also make money. On paper, that makes him an ideal interpreter of The Hulk for the coveted date-movie market. Still, Universal must be holding its breath. Crouching Tiger made a fortune in the West, but the masses of hardcore martial-arts movie fans in mainland China who wrote it off as a wimpy performance piece make a snug fit with the profile of Western moviegoers who plonk down their $9 for loud explosions. The Hulk is put together with fluid grace, but it is visibly two separate movies: one, an intimate realist drama shot in muted gray and pastel close-up by the poetic cinematographer Fred Elmes; the other, a computer-generated playground for the crew at Industrial Light and Magic, who have kept faith with the buoyant pizzazz of Stan Lee’s four-color comic book panels.

The Hulk is a beautiful movie, but it’s unlikely to win points as a monster flick — it’s too elegant, too whimsical. Musclebound and gigantic though he is, the Hulk is an endearing fellow in his skimpy purple shorts and mounds of green, topped by a nice black rug — he’s about as threatening as the Michelin tire man. His emerald-eyed gaze is more sad than cruel, and even Connelly, whose small-boned, ethereal beauty makes her a perfect successor to Fay Wray, can’t make him seem fearsome. When, in an affectionate nod to his gorilla ancestor, the Hulk lifts her up in his giant mitts and gently sets her down again, one expects a rousing chorus of “Thumbelina” to waft in on the soundtrack. Not even the climactic finale, in which San Francisco Bay takes a pounding, can dispel the suspicion that Ang Lee’s Hulk is more Jolly Green Giant than Toxic Avenger.

As anyone who has seen Crouching Tiger — or Lee’s lovely early film Pushing Hands — knows, combat for this director is a medium of dance, of communication, while horror gives form to philosophy. Along with his longtime collaborator James Schamus, who cooked up and co-wrote (with John Turman and Michael France) the story for The Hulk, Lee is a wistful expressionist, a wit and a thinker in the tradition of the great James Whale. In that sense, The Hulk is an articulation not only of the struggle between father and sons, but of our most current topical fears. It is not, finally, our fighting men who most freak us out, but our scientists, those who divorce thought from feeling, who try to improve on nature, who insist on tinkering with food, sheep and — scariest of all — us.

THE HULK | Directed by ANG LEE | Written by JOHN TURMAN, MICHAEL FRANCE and JAMES SCHAMUS | From a story by SCHAMUS, based on the Marvel comic book character created by STAN LEE and JACK KIRBY | Produced by GALE ANN HURD, AVI ARAD, SCHAMUS and LARRY FRANCO | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide