Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2008

Deja vu

The 'Hulk' is back . . . and yes, he's still a big, crappy special effect

The Incredible Hulk
Universal Pictures
Director: Louis Letterier
Screenplay: Zak Penn and Edward Norton
Starring: Edward Norton, Tim Roth, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell and Paul Soles
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 54 minutes
(out of four)


No. No. No.

This is me putting my foot down. This will not stand, man. Listen, Louis Letterier (if that's your real name): You think you can just stroll into the action-fantasy universe - post-King Kong, post-Gollum, even post-Transformers - and casually lower the standards we've come to expect? You think we won't notice that the most critical element of your film is one flimsy, implausible (cost-cutting?) special effect?

What, all the explosions and Edward Norton's dreamy eyes were supposed to throw us off your scent? Look, if Ang Lee couldn't get away with it, we're not letting you off the hook, either.

People marvel over the possibilities of modern special effects. "It's amazing what they can do with computers these days," they might say. True enough. But can do doesn't always mean filmmakers (and/or studios) will do. Too often, they're satisfied with second-rate effects that do nothing more than draw attention to their own cartoonish transparency when they should be blending seamlessly with the live action. Whether it's self-imposed budget restraints, pure laziness or a general lack of care for the quality of the product, it's unacceptable - especially for a comic-book franchise with a massive built-in audience and a mainstream public that has buoyed comic-book movies to record box-office numbers.

But such is the problem with The Incredible Hulk, the second attempted big-screen incarnation of the Marvel character, and even more of a failure than the first try. It makes you wonder why this movie even exists in the first place. The general consensus was that the biggest problem with Lee's Hulk was the beast himself - a giant, bright green CGI cartoon that completely undermined the live-action sets it was supposedly meant to be interacting with (or, you know, tearing to pieces).

So in trying to reboot the franchise, the powers that be proceeded to repeat the exact same mistake. Bottom line, no matter how much effort you pour into story and character and style - remember, the 2003 version had some things going for it - if your central figure looks like he crawled out of a video-game console, you fail. That's it.

No matter how well you choreograph a fight scene, it's going to look inherently implausible. No matter how convincingly objects get smashes or buildings topple over and crumble, the object doing the smashing and the toppling still looks ridiculous.

For some movies, shaky special effects - a few shots here, a couple of creatures there - can be overcome. Maybe they cheapen the movie a little bit, but you can get over it. Not with the Hulk. It's the title character. He's supposed to be scary and menacing, a grand physical spectacle. Instead, we feel like we should be controlling him with a joystick. When the bar is raised, it should stay raised. Yet the Hulk is a special effect that already looks dated.

Not that the movie would have necessarily survived anyway. Even before the Hulk's first big action setpiece, the film had settled into the mechanical hum of a by-the-numbers summer movie. The feeling of an assembly-line product permeates the entire film. There's no vision behind it - just enough padding to get from one action scene to the next.

Unlike other recent comic-book fare, The Incredible Hulk never asks anything of its audience. We are expected to automatically identify with the tortured castaway Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) merely because he's the Hero - not because the film adds any interesting dimensions to his character. Sure, he's living in hiding to avoid detection from the military authorities that want to use his genetic mutation as a weapon, but we knew that already - those are just plot details, and the film doesn't try to find any character nuances within them.

We're expected to have a rooting interest in his relationship with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), but not due to any effort on the part of the screenplay to set it apart from countless other doomed superhero romances.

The film's most interesting aspect is the military mercenary Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who becomes Banner's nemesis thanks to a bit of genetic mutation of his own, courtesy of the odious General Ross (William Hurt), who's hard on Banner's trail. Blonsky's near-addiction to the powers his mutation bring on provides a counterpoint to Banner's desperate desire to rid himself of the curse, but he, too, eventually just turns into a flimsy special effect, and the climactic battle between Hulk and, as he comes to be known, Abomination, does nothing we couldn't come up with ourselves.

With this and Iron Man, Marvel has started an impressively ambitious experiment, attempting to create an all-encompassing Marvel universe in which its characters co-exist. Iron Man was first, now Hulk. We've already gotten a taste of Nick Fury, and Thor, Captain America and Ant-Man are on their way, all inevitably leading up to an Avengers movie. It's a fascinating big-picture experiment. So far, we've got one hit and one big miss.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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