Ostensibly, “Hulk” is about science gone amok and about the various things parents do to screw up their children. In practical terms, though, it is about an enormous green man smashing things.
He does it with awesome precision and a brutishness that is almost graceful, making us feel terrified and impressed simultaneously. It is with glee that we see him so thoroughly unhinged yet still so controlled that, after ripping the gun off a tank, he smacks it against his palm like a club before destroying the tank with it. That’s some good summer blockbuster behavior there.
The Hulk is the alter ego of Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a brooding scientist who inherited his geneticist father’s mutated genes that came as the result of Dad experimenting on himself in the 1960s (and not in the same way a lot of people experimented on themselves in the ’60s). After being exposed to a barrage of gamma radiation as an adult, Bruce’s potential is unlocked and he becomes, when angered, the Hulk. His regenerative powers — which Dad harnessed from animals like starfish and lizards — prevent him from being killed, and the angrier he gets, the larger he gets.
Jennifer Connelly has a surprisingly large and vital role as Betty Ross, Bruce’s colleague and former girlfriend. Like the put-upon supporter of a troubled scientist she played in “A Beautiful Mind,” she lends emotional conviction here to a film that might otherwise lack it: Bana can do an incredible sulk and an excellent rage, but his interpretation of the role beyond that is limited.
Ang Lee — director of such varied fare as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — brings a fresh set of eyes to the comic book genre. He envisions the film almost literally as a comic book, often filling the screen with panels — a device employed for different reasons on TV’s “24” — and allowing elements of one scene to enter the picture before the last scene has fully removed itself. He’s a director who seeks out the most visually interesting way of telling a story, and that skill is brought to bear in “Hulk.” (We must acknowledge the hands of cinematographer Fred Elmes and editor Tim Squyres — both long-time Lee collaborators — in all of this, too.)
That said, I do wish Lee had explored a few things more thoroughly. The motives of Bruce’s increasingly insane father (Nick Nolte) are not always clear, and the elder Banner’s self-experimentation produces effects that could have been extremely fascinating if they’d been given more screen time. And the smarmy, in-it-for-the-money scientist played by Josh Lucas barely even registers as a temporary villain.
Fans should note that, contrary to the disappointing advertisements, the Hulk himself — entirely computer-generated — looks fantastic. CGI technology keeps getting better, and the Hulk’s appearance and movements represent the new state of the art. What Lee did for flight in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” he now does for tragic superheroes: He makes it all seem new again.
B+ (2 hrs., 18 min.; )