I never saw Ang Lee’s Hulk when it came out, but I caught about an hour of it on TV while I was in the gym the other day. It looked pretty much like I expected: angsty, heavy, tedious, and fake.
“Angsty” and “heavy” I can understand. If you really stop and think about the Hulk story, as I confess I didn’t until recently, it’s pretty serious stuff. Hulk’s not so much a superhero as an unchained id, or unfettered psychosis, or ball of unleashed insecurity, take your pick. It’s Jekyll and Hyde, actually. And I grew up with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno in those horribly sad TV episodes. I don’t know if the show has aged well but for a first grader that stuff was high drama. Just playing the theme music in my head makes me want to lie down in front of a train.
So it’s carrying on in that vein, and I can respect that. “Tedious” is a tougher charge, but I sat through The Ice Storm so I’m sure I can handle this.
But “fake” is a serious problem. I’m not one of these people for whom excellent CGI and special effects are a virtue for their own sake. I know that tons of skill and artistry go into creating them, and yet I think they’re doing their job best when you don’t notice them; that is, when what you’re seeing looks so convincing that you simply accept it as what’s happening in the film and don’t think about the seam between acting and effects. I seem to recall Jurassic Park being really convincing on this metric; of course we all knew that reality ended where the dinosaurs began, but it all looked plausible. Probably the fact that none of us has ever seen a dinosaur in the flesh helped a lot there; we had no real-world models to compare them to.
In I Am Legend, though, we’ve all seen lions, and those just didn’t look like lions. We haven’t seen devolved zombie-people, unless we spend a lot of time in Bible Belt shopping malls, but we know what ordinary humans look like and how their faces move and so it’s easy for our brains to say about Will Smith’s foes “not real.” Well, but more damning than that: “not really there.”
That’s the problem with the CGI Hulk. Of course we’ve never seen the Hulk in real life, but we can extrapolate from what we know of bodybuilders and Andre the Giant what a real Hulk might look like, so it’s easy for our eyes to catch the cues that what we’re seeing is not only not real but not really there. This physical absence is one important reason why the original Star Wars trilogy looked like it contained places you could walk around in but the prequel trilogy didn’t.
It shouldn’t matter, right? It’s a character-driven story. We should just accept the big green graphic the way we accepted E.T. even though we knew he was a puppet or a suit or whatever he was. And yet it makes a difference, because the moments when the Hulk appears are the pivotal moments of the story, the moments the story is all about, and if every time it happens we’re jerked out of the story and reminded that we have to keep clapping our hands if we believe in pixels, the moment is broken.
This post is called “pre-hulk” because at some point I’m probably going to see it, hopefully before the sequel starring Ed Norton which doesn’t sound more promising. But the hour I did see contained nothing that encouraged me in this, apart from Sam Elliott’s amazing screen presence as General Ross.