The Hulk
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 20 June 2003

Inside you

The oddest moment during Eric Bana's appearance on The Tonight Show (17 June) came when Leno asked him to demonstrate his impersonation skills. A popular comic back in Australia before his frankly brilliant performance in Chopper, Bana obliged: lurching forward in his chair, he scratched up his voice, mumbled and glowered, suddenly and a little unnervingly transforming himself into Nick Nolte, the self-caricature of a man who plays his father in Hulk. 

Nolte has surely developed eminently mimic-able tics and growls over the years, not to mention his most recent signature, the frazzled mugshotty hairstyle. In Hulk, he makes the most of these markers and then some, to the point that he is easily the film's best special effect -- all peery eyes and spastic gestures. And he's held off like an effect, not appearing until twenty minutes into the film, as David is played in the early sequences and subsequent flashbacks by Paul Kersey.

In any incarnation, however, it is clear that David is not just a bad dad, but the very worst of dads. He is Frankensteinish, messing with nature, abusing his loved ones, aspiring to play god by creating life that he might command. As depraved scientists often do in the movies, he starts off working for the military (the people with the money back in the day), and the film's opening credits sequence indicates his experimental focus. Part poetry, part abstraction, and part comic book spectacular, the sequence has images of cells multiplying and DNA strands dancing are intercut with David's eye at his microscope and his increasingly fiercely written notes, including keywords like "genetic basis," "regeneration," "immortality," and "failed!"

This last is a big problem. David's failure leads to his own anger and frustration, which he works out by sticking needles full of his green-glowing experiment in his arm, so that his own DNA changes, and when he impregnates his pretty wife (Cara Buono), she produces a child who turns shades of green when he doesn't get his way. He is, indeed, his father's son. Unbeknownst to pretty wife, David also puts needles in the baby's arm, so determined is he to achieve his me-me-me regenerative goal.

All this makes David colossally representative, of any number of terrible patriarchal ambitions and errors in judgment. The insight offered by Hulk is that the next generation is shaped -- here, literally -- by the one previous. Little does adult Bruce know. When he first appears in the film, he's riding his bicycle to work at a Berkeley lab, wearing a nerdy safety helmet that his nerdy coworker ridicules. His father's legacy pulses inside of Bruce, as yet unseen DNA mutations: all he needs is a little gamma ray accident (made famous in the Marvel comic books and the TV series where Lou Ferrigno played the Hulk and Mr. Eddie's Father played Banner), to set those mutations into motion.

Bruce is also in the dark concerning the fact that his father is alive. Apparently, security at Bruce's lab is lax: David is hired as a janitor, so that his first appearance is lurky and ominous -- pushing his mop like a cranky, hairy Will Hunting. He's been gone a long time, having spent thirty years in prison, arranged by the other prominent father in the movie, General Ross (Sam Elliot). It so happens that Ross' estranged daughter is Betty (Jennifer Connelly, whose next role, we can only hope, does not involve watering eyes as she gazes upward at the difficult object of her affection -- whoever he is). She's Bruce's lab partner and girlfriend, though technically, they've broken up at film's start, owing to her fear that he will abandon her like her dad did when she was a two-year-old, alone in an ice cream shop.

Coincidentally, Betty's dad left her back then (temporarily) because he has to run off and arrest Bruce's father, who has blown up his lab. This weird concurrence -- at the time, Betty and Bruce do not know one another -- suggests that both these kids are doomed to lives of sorrow and isolation, by their dads (moms being either unseen or only briefly breathing), whether their DNA is engineered in a lab or left to their parental pool-mixing. Her memory comes to her in ice-cream-shop nightmares, unrepressed. His eats him up from within, unacknowledged.

The genetic engineering (along with the "repressed memories" from which Bruce suffers) does take its sensational toll (otherwise, no movie). So it's for Bruce that the metaphor of bad-dadness looms largest: "Everything your extraordinary mind has been seeking all these years: it's been inside you!" growls David. Poor Bruce doesn't stand a chance, pounding the ground and turning green and bulgy whenever he gets angry (and the CGI effects are not so awful as they looked in the Superbowl ad, but yet distractingly unconvincing).

Still, like most socialized subjects, he appears able to manage the anger. He doesn't turn when he has something at stake in not turning, as in his effort to keep his Hulk DNA from extraction-drill-wielding archenemy Talbot (Josh Lucas looking as obnoxious as he knows how), rep for the corporation Atheon. This business signifies all the bad global capitalists who exploit workers, positioning Hulk as a mighty worker, mightily alienated from his labor.

Where Bruce does visible (and visibly dangerous) work in the lab, the Hulk's work is largely metaphorical: David calls Bruce his "work," but he is also the emblematic worker's body, abused and exhausted, underpaid and underappreciated, that is, perpetually enraged and devastating/devastated (and unfortunately in this instance, unconvincingly CGI-ed). While eluding the military, Hulk heads off to the desert, where he communes with desert flowers and multi-colored rocks. While these moments are rather too precious, they underline his lack of downtime: Hulk can't get a day off. Indeed, when Betty finally convinces her dad and his men to back off, she does so explaining that Bruce/Hulk (she sees the former, dad sees the latter) just needs a chance to "cool down." Being angry is hard work.

This is where the film starts (but also fails) to make a coherent point: Hulk's greenness is stunning against his all-Caucasian background. Hulk is the of-color being inside the white guy who's so repressed he can't tell his girl he loves her. Is it any wonder that when he turns, it feels like a relief? He admits to Betty that when "it comes over me, I like it," his voice husky like dad's.

The repressed body isn't precisely preferable over the uncontrolled body, but still, the greenness makes Hulk a little scary. Hulk (or better, "Hulkness") is a threat to the community, the reason that prisons have become punishment factories rather than rehab efforts, and the reason that prisoners are overwhelmingly of color. At first, Betty tries to regain control, calling in dad to sedate and study (and "protect") Bruce, but the results are disastrous. The military locks him in a sensory deprivation tank, where he floats, laborless, until Talbot gets hold of it and endeavors to enrage Bruce so he can extract DNA to sell as weapons technology (shades of Burke in Aliens). This call to still more sacrifice, to give up more of his body, sends Hulk over the edge. Roaring and repetitive action sequences ensue.

But for all the pains taken by military and corporate entities to contain Hulk, it is David's sustained effort -- his unsanctioned, unholy, self-absorbed effort to "improve on nature" -- that makes Hulk go so wrong. So that Hulk looks like a victim rather than just a monster, the most egregious manifestation of the error is dad's own body, which is, at last, so alienated that it absorbs qualities from whatever it touches, changing into metal, stone, water. If ever there was a metaphor for a man in need of identity, David's dreadful "turn" would be it. By the end, he's lost even that distinctive Nick-Nolte-ness that made him so eerily compelling. At least Hulk has a shape to call his own.

Directed by:
Ang Lee

Starring:
Eric Bana
Jennifer Connelly
Sam Elliot
Nick Nolte
Josh Lucas

Written by:
James Schamus
John Turman
Michael France
James Schamus

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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