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Poor Little Greenie

Atom Age to New Age: The Hulk's inner child in torment

By Richard von Busack

THE SHORT VERSION is that the film of The Hulk is in terrible shape, but it's in interesting terrible shape. Nick Nolte's Captain Ahab shouts are crosscut with onscreen bubbling psychedelia; the effects look like the work of retired light-show engineers from the Family Dog. The Hulk is one stark-raving weird movie. Though much of it is good meat-and-potatoes stuff of a green monster fighting the U.S. Army in the desert, the film comes as packed with New Age gibberish as Altered States.

Its very strangeness is going to make for some bracing defensive essays on the Internet. Take the Christian symbolism: the Evilco in the film, the defense-contracting swine who want to exploit our hero? It's wittily named "Atheon"; the final line of dialogue seems to be a variation on "Into your hands, I commend my spirit." And yet it is actually the Hulk's Oedipal dilemma that spurs the plot. The power of a menacing father (Nolte, never nuttier) is opposed to the unconditional maternal love of an etherized and strangely modest Jennifer Connelly, playing the vaguely defined girlfriend Betty Ross. The poetic highlight arrives when Eric Bana--our numb, shocked Bruce Banner--and the lovely Connelly visit the deserted ruins of the Army housing they both lived in as children; he sees dead flowers that his mother planted. Some would call it fulsome, but it's not what you expect from a movie leading to ARRGH! HULK SMASH!

Connelly's sensitivity may not have been the perfect direction in which to take the story. Most versions of the Dr. Jekyll tale give Mr. Hyde a bad girl to hang out with. The Hulk mostly takes place in the East Bay and San Francisco. As we poor trembling men know, the Bay Area is chock-full of power-hungry women--couldn't one of them have had a thing for the Hulk when he was fully engorged?

Director Ang Lee tries for visual snazz with asymmetrical split-screen shots, with inserted panels that shift and are wiped out, in a nice-try experimental fashion to create a comic-book look. The special effects waver in the acceptable realm before sinking into rich badness, in scenes like a too-long dog-monster attack seriously poached from the original King Kong, and nigh-invisible nocturnal Ultramanian battle with a boulder creature. The peak of disappointment isn't the Hulk's attack on San Francisco (he's as respectful of the local architecture as the Planning Commission) but a scene in which he's dropped about 24 miles from a jet fighter, and he makes a sad little splash in the bay that could be topped by any self-respecting cannon-baller at the municipal plunge.

Trying to avoid the reliable cliché of the evil military experiment gone haywire, Lee and his screenwriters came up with a more Freudian method of monster making. The U.S. Army in The Hulk is a neutral party, there to contain the creature. It must be a post-9/11 thing. The U.S. Army is within its rights to protect civilization against a roaring green monster. What it needs isn't depleted uranium shells but a psychiatrist: the big lug turns out just to need reparenting.

The Hulk (PG-13; 138 min.), directed by Ang Lee, written by James Schamus and John Turman, photographed by Frederick Elmes and starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly and Nick Nolte, plays valleywide.

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Web extra to the June 19-25, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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