DVD Review #27: The Incredible Hulk (The 3-Disc Special Edition) (2008)

March 15, 2010 at 8:22 AM | Posted in Based on a Comic, DVD Reviews, Franchise Film | Leave a comment

“Holy shit, the Iron Man! Iron maaan, iron maaan, does whatever a iron caaan… You da man, Tony Stark! WOOO!!!”

Preface:
As far as movies about skinny guys who become bigger and greener go, this is one of them.

(Cont.)

Summary:
Marvel’s reboot of the Hulk finds Banner hiding out in Brazil, training himself to lower his heart rate by jogging, and search for a cure for his condition. The incident is shown in flashbacks that borrow from the Bill Bixby television series. When Bruce accidentally bleeds into a bottle of delicious guarana soda, the foreman accidentally forgets to care, causing General Ross to track Banner down. The Hulk is unleashed after some middle school bullies attack Banner at the bottling plant, where Ross has sent Emil Blonsky to capture the monster.

Bruce returns to Culver University to find the research he left behind, using Gepetto’s Pizzeria as cover. Betty Ross finds him and gives him the data he’s looking for. Unbeknowst to the lovebird scientists, General Ross has given Blonksy some leftover Captain America juice and turned him into a super-soldier. Blonsky and his team attack Banner at the university, carelessly destroying student cars that will never be paid off. The Hulk fends them off and retreats to a rainy grotto.

Betty and Bruce run away to New York, only to find they are unable to fuck, as it would cause a sexy Hulk-out. They meet with the genius scientist Mr. Blue, who with Bruce’s data, has been able to narrow down a cure. Although the serum seems to work on Bruce, it doesn’t, and no one really reacts to this because they are distracted when Ross and his military goons attack once again.

This time, however, super-soldier Blonsky forces Mr. Blue to inject him with whatever Hulk stuff he has cultivated, and becomes some kind of abomination. He Ferrignos out and makes it to Broadway, where he swats a lot of things. General Ross is convinced to let Banner jump out of a helicopter, which miraculously enables him to Hulk out instead of splattering. The monsters have a monster fight, where Hulk chokes his enemy into submission and obscurity, as his fate is not acknowledged.

In Canada, Bruce either learns to control the Hulk, or not. General Ross meets with Tony Stark to discuss the idea of Hulk becoming a villain, but they both agree the idea is really stupid.

Review:
After repeated viewings, I have lightened up a bit about Louis Leterrier’s reboot of the Hulk franchise. It is not badly made, the action is good, and the story certainly struggles like the little engine that could. But I still feel like it’s lacking something, and I still prefer Ang Lee’s film, which is a great film with no audience. Hulk was not better for its obvious flaws, but the contrast between the two films does shed some light on how difficult and ambiguous the process of making a successful movie really is. So, thankfully, Lee’s film is quite a bit different from Leterrier’s; not only can you get different things out of each, but you can see how neither approach was quite the right formula. It makes analysis a hell of a lot easier that way.

Regarding Ang Lee’s Hulk, I know it’s not well loved by fans, because all they wanted was “Hulk smash” and no depth. They got that to some degree with the reboot, but they weren’t all happy with that either. Where the critics are concerned, Rotten Tomatoes has the film at 61%. The reboot is a 66%. So it was by no means as hated as the underrated The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which yielded a shocking 13% rating. But it’s still criticized as being too much like a drama, which is a spoiled fruit of expectation.

Lee’s Hulk film suffers mainly from a misguided approach. The approach in itself is absolutely successful. The film as a story is virtually flawless. The problem stems from the mixture of concept, execution, and ultimately medium. As a drama, it’s brilliant. But as a drama about a guy who turns into a fifteen foot monster, it’s hard for most audiences to take seriously (the linchpin of drama). So on the one hand, it doesn’t work as a character piece because of the cartoonish concept. On the other hand, the Hulk fans mostly don’t care to see the deep side of the character which would have made for an award-winning graphic novel. It’s a double standard, but it works as an example as what can be accomplished on paper as opposed to on screen; hand-in-hand with Leterrier’s piece, which is too much goofy cartoon action that isn’t strengthened by the more formulaic dramatic elements.

Leterrier starts his film by paying tribute to the television series. Where Lee’s version of Bruce Banner is a nerdy scientist with great depth of character, Edward Norton plays him like Bill Bixby – a very normal, boring guy without much (if any) backstory. For TV, that’s a typical approach. The character comes from the situations that the viewer experiences. In a movie, it’s typical of action heroes, and done to save time. In fact, Bixby’s character had a lot more depth, which was introduced in the pilot episode. How relevant that was is questionable, but it gave the audience access to Banner and a reason to care what happens to him. Here, that backstory is gone, supplanted with a superficial relationship with Betty Ross. The origin itself is told only through the credits, similar to the show’s retelling during its opening credits, but lacking any connection between the viewer and the events they’re seeing.

Similarly, we don’t know much about the backstory of Betty, her father, or Emil Blonsky. Certainly there should be more depth to the villain than simply enjoying fighting, which is what Abomination is reduced to here. Maybe the flashbacks of a younger General Ross in the previous film were unnecessary and ineffective, but no one could be blamed for trying to develop the character into something more real. Lee took pains to establish the relationship between Betty and Bruce, what it used to be, and why it hadn’t worked out. Here, it’s purely down to acting. Some might say that’s the better option, but I wonder if the actors made up their own backstories to support that. The film overall seems to presuppose a knowledge of the previous movie, even though it’s not a sequel. Ang Lee bothered to craft well-rounded characters, so this movie doesn’t even make the attempt. But then, from where in the other picture are we meant to glean information about the Blonsky character? Blonsky forces the audience to assume the characters are all as shallow as him, instead of being allowed to pretend they could be Ang Lee’s characters. The decorated soldier who wants nothing but power and a good fight makes it all too clear that the movie favors action over logic or emotion.

Thus we come to a rather inexplicable change from the very source material. To support the idea that Banner avoiding action would be futile, he is written into a corner that he can’t escape from. Instead of the classic triggers of anger and pain being the things that bring out the Hulk, it is now as simple as a raised pulse. This means Banner can’t do the simplest things, and yet strangely he is constantly jogging. Logically, I don’t know how sound any of this is. 200 beats per minute is just about the limit of a human pulse, but Banner reaches that rate even when getting beat up. I doubt very much that receiving a pummelling can equal the effect of the most strenuous Olympic exercise. Nor could doing Liv Tyler, I’m afraid to admit. While this makes Banner’s story a little more tragic and the threat of his condition more frequent and realistic, it needlessly deprives us of the Hulk’s driving force. Hulk smash, yes. But is Hulk ever angry? In this film, he seems more annoyed than enraged. The potential for human fury that Lee explored is nowhere to be seen here. Banner spends all his time trying to control his pulse when he is in no way an angry person, no more in danger of a high pulse rate than your average stenographer. Banner’s struggle is now to avoid completely random triggers and go live as a hermit, which he should have absolutely no trouble doing. In choosing this route, the film emphasizes one of the failings of the television show, which is that Bruce was forced to be accident prone and possessing of some attribute that made people want to beat him up, as well as the misfortune to encounter such people with alarming frequency.

The common misconception is that this film has more action than Lee’s film. I’m not so sure if that’s strictly true. Leterrier’s film has three action sequences. There are five Hulk sequences if you count the credits. Lee’s film has four Hulk sequences, three of them fight scenes. If anything, it’s an equal number. Whether Leterrier’s scenes contain “more” action is debatable. They are more frenetic and more concentrated, but with less variety. Lee’s sequences are much more dynamic and wide-ranging compared to Leterrier’s kinetic, but more intimate setups.

In Leterrier’s film, our first dose of action is in the form of Banner running from Blonsky and his team. They end up at a bottling plant, where a lot of shooting takes place, and several large objects are thrown. Hulk is kept in the dark for most of this scene. Rather than comparing this to the dog fight in the previous film, I am more inclined to interpret it as an extended version of Hulk’s first transformation in Banner’s lab from the previous movie. The idea is the same: to show the Hulk’s first appearance in shadow, to establish his appetite for destruction, and play up a horror aspect. Lee’s first fight sequence is more grand, less about people, and akin to the “monsters fighting” premise of this movie. There, Banner is first seen transforming in full view in his house. He trashes his antagonist with good reason. The scene then moves to Betty’s cabin, where she meets the Hulk for the first time. The dogs attack Hulk outside the cabin. The fight then moves into the forest before ending. Where Leterrier always keeps the camera moving, Ang Lee moves the action to new locations.

Leterrier’s next big action set-up is the battle at Culver University. This is played between Hulk and Blonsky, while still managing to destroy some trucks and set off some explosions. The sonic cannons used here are inventive, but generally cartoonish and seem to be a gratuitous special effect. Lee’s second big action sequence spans over several scenes, moving from the water tank breakout to the foam containment, to trashing the main room of the underground base, to being bombed in the desert, to smashing and flinging heavy duty tanks, to fighting hueys and missiles, to being buried under tons of rock, to grappling with a fighter jet, and finally smashing up the streets of San Francisco. It is only the pacing of the film leading up to this sequence that reportedly lessens its effect withg some audiences. For me, it greatens the effect by building up to it with a story. The climax of The Incredible Hulk is yet another fight with Blonsky, this time as the Abomination. Again, it is eye candy with little motivation. It moves merely from the street to a simple building set (whether a rooftop or ground-level was never clear to me). Ang Lee’s equivalent one-on-one fight comes as the physical and emotional resolution to his film, starting with a trip through the clouds, landing on a rocky shore, and ending with an underwater confrontation that creates a massive surge of energy ended by an atomic explosion.

Fans seem to prefer the one giant explosion broken up into smaller parts to the economical gratuity of spreading out the action across miles and minutes. Leterrier’s Hulk hits fast and hard where Lee plays up the character’s struggle and torment, both inner and outer. Leterrier’s action is less gratifying than it should be, due to his preference of a cinematic aesthetic over a more comic-book oriented one. His shots are frequently violent, blurred with motion, and rarely stopping for breath. It creates a certain spectacle that a lot of people respond to well, but which can also be quiet exhausting and alienating. Not only is there very little dramatic basis for the conflict, but the conflict itself is hard to relate to on a purely visual basis. This works in many shots, but the audience is given no time with Hulk as a character. He is a brute, put on film for only one purpose.

Leterrier’s Hulk is an action hero, devoid of much personality or even base desires. When he smashes, he smashes because he isn’t built for anything else. When he rescues Betty, he merely goes through the motions, expressing no care for her safety. When Betty calms the Hulk down in Mr. Blue’s lab, it is not through their connection, but only with the help of an antidote. The design of the character also shows an obvious preference for superficiality and action. His human traits are played down in favor of a gaping maw which can expose an aggressive set of teeth. His body is exaggerated beyond physical realism, opting instead to show as many sinews and veins as possible (or more aptly, impossible). Pride is taken in the amount of detail his physique displays, not dissimilar to the values of the bodybuilding world. Rhythm & Hues have created the world’s most detailed cartoon character, in sharp contrast to ILM’s attention to the realism and humanity that could elevate him beyond the status of mere beast. Ang Lee fashioned a tragic monster, where Louis Leterrier presents him as an epic and powerful devastator comparable to Conan or Hercules. For all the attempts of The Incredible Hulk to pay tribute to the feel of the TV series, Lee’s Hulk did a better job at establishing the character who drove that feel. Eric Bana was tormented enough to deserve the “Lonely Man” theme. Edward Norton displayed only a guy occasionally in need of a shirt.

Where the actors are concerned, their talent is largely wasted on a film that doesn’t want it. Presumably the idea was to get good actors to support a silly concept and make it seem like more than just a cartoon action movie. But wasn’t that the point of the first movie, with the added benefit of also having a quality script? Roth is a cardboard villain and plays it as such, adding only the facet of playing it as a drug addict. Edward Norton doesn’t really have much of anything to do, as his most dramatic scenes are cut from the film. Also on the editing room floor is most of William Hurt’s performance, which pales in comparison to the more suitable Sam Elliott. Liv Tyler does manage to rise above the performance of her predecessor, without being needlessly beautiful. Still, her acting can’t support the entire movie, nor make up for the qualities lacking in each other role in the film.

It’s quite obvious that the actors involved with The Incredible Hulk did it for similar reasons. They all wanted to challenge their normal styles and have fun in a big, dumb movie at the same time. Tim Roth clearly enjoys playing a villain, while Norton is doing nothing to hide his joy of playing the Hulk through motion and facial capture. Likewise, William Hurt dons his fake hair and moustache and plays against his normal, quiet type. But is the casting really appropriate for this movie’s approach? It seems odd that anyone would have been drawn in by their names, when the whole focus is that of a muscle-bound heroic monster.

The Incredible Hulk cost only slightly more than Hulk, and made only slightly more profit. Something just didn’t work about abandoning drama and plot for action. I can’t really pinpoint why neither film made what it was expected to. It would appear that people just aren’t too interested in a movie with a CG main character. They didn’t go to the first movie despite its massive advertising campaign. The second film may have faltered in releasing too close to both Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Six comic book films were released in 2008. Hellboy II got its usual small but dedicated audience, but still made back more than its budget in profit. Two of the films were massively popular. But this film made only a meager sum, comparitively. The year was not so kind to Punisher: War Zone, which lost $11 million for Marvel and Lionsgate, in a similar situation as Hulk’s reboot which put the spotlight on action and violence. By Christmas, Frank Miller’s reworking of The Spirit didn’t stand a chance. 2009 only saw three comic book films released, the two superhero franchises being Watchmen and Wolverine. One can’t help but wonder if Marvel shouldn’t have put all their eggs in one basket, opting instead to push Hulk back sensibly to the following year, where fans could have awaited another two franchise films. The Hulk reboot might have looked a lot more appealing when the only alternative was a disappointing X-Men spinoff.

Basically, this is what anyone would expect from a Hulk movie. One can only assume it would have done better without the lingering residue of Ang Lee’s attempt at serious filmmaking. Ang Lee was ahead of his time, unappreciated when only five years later such pretention would be rewarded for Batman’s reboot sequel. But compared to that piece of cinema and the mass appeal of Favreau’s surprise hit Iron Man, Marvel’s desperate rewrite of history just seemed mediocre, superficial, too little, and too late.

Commentary:
Tim Roth joins director Louis Leterrier for a very talkative commentary, the style of which is even more sorely missed on Iron Man (reportedly Favreau and Downey did a live commentary at some point, but it is not publicly available). The only note I take away from this apart from enjoyment is that I really want to know which superhero movie Tim Roth thought had too much music. I would love to analyze that film to see if he’s right. But not knowing, the tidbit is of no use to me, and I can’t learn from it. So, thanks for nothing, Tim. If I had to GUESS, my memory recalls quite a lot of music in a lot of scenes in Batman Begins. As to whether one could find that annoying, it’s possible. Especially when the music is more monotonous than thematic.

Extras:
Disc one’s deleted Scenes (13:28) comprise extended scenes in Rio of Bruce jogging, getting his mail, meditating, and building stuff out of old record players like E.T.; more yell-acting with William Hurt; a scene where Blonski recounts his encounter with the Hulk, and an extended/alternate scene between Ross and Blonski about Banner’s experiment.

Disc two’s alternate opening (2:34) shows Bruce in presumably northern Canada, attempting to shoot himself, but Hulking out before he has the chance. Why he went to a glacier to do this, I don’t know. As for the infamous “frozen Captain America” appearance in this scene, yes, it’s there, if you step-frame through the very end of the avalanche, there’s a distinctive outline of a guy and a shield on some ice that pops up in the foreground. But it looks as clear as a blurry picture of a fossil, and it can’t be seen watching at regular speed. It’s certainly not worth getting the DVD for.

There are 29 minutes of additional deleted scenes on this disc. You’ll see such wonders as Bruce delivering pizza, talking, crying, and looking at plants.

“The Making of Incredible” (29:52) – A brief feature, brought to you by Volkswagon. You’d think with a sponsor, they could make a really long, comprehensive documentary with some kind of budget. But no. I guess the idea is this is the making of the the “incredible” part, but not the Hulk part, because there’s no Hulk here. It’s just the filming of a quick, cheap action movie with no monsters.

“Becoming the Hulk” (9:23) – Here’s your Hulk stuff. For some reason, not much. Maybe because there’s not that much Hulk in the movie?

“Becoming the Abomination” (10:16) – And here’s a longer feature about Abomination. Huh.

“Anatomy of a Hulk-Out” (27:50) presents an inside look at each Hulk sequence from the movie (except for the lab transformation).

“From Comic Book to Screen” (6:33) features an animated Jeph Loeb comic scene that partially inspired the grotto scene in the movie.

Disc three isn’t really a DVD. It’s something called a “digital copy.” I don’t know what that is, but I don’t want a copy! I want the real thing!

The “third disc” is in an envelope stuck into the DVD case. The o-sleeve is a glossy/matte CG picture with decent embossed creatures. The features showing motion capture and some CG work are interesting, but far too brief. Most of the deleted scenes are incidental, the slightly better ones being on the first disc. Requisite features like a comic book origin or gallery are missing. Not much here worth a lot of extra cash besides the commentary.

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