By Ted Pigeon
Midway through Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) and a Hulked-out Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) share an exchange that could easily be confused with a scene from a less commercial film made at one of Universal's smaller subsidiaries. Aside from the impressive CG-effects (somewhat obscured, and assisted greatly by the darkness of night), there is palpable affection between the towering digital creation and Connelly. Bruce shamefully gazes on Betty in self-disgust, the moonlight shining off his bulging arms as he moves to gingerly lift her off the ground. When her arms drape over his giant limbs, we can feel it. No dialogue is uttered; there are only faces.
In that moment, Lee achieves something that so few filmmakers have with digital effects. He literally brings a digital creation to life. The scene can be seen as something of a precursor to the under-appreciated King Kong (2005), wherein director Peter Jackson momentarily mutes out the world so that a flesh-and-blood woman can connect with a pixelated monster. But unlike Jackson's Kong and various other works featuring memorable digital creations, Hulk will not be remembered as a defining moment in the history of CGI. And yet, the film is more subtle, evocative, and arguably more innovative than a great deal of the so-called greats (e.g. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, The Perfect Storm, etc.).
Lee understands that the quality of effects have little to do with their photorealism. How "real" the Hulk looks is irrelevant—the reality is instead contingent on the conveyance of feeling. This affective connection is not necessarily achieved by top-line effects (a notion that echoes a traditionalist application of digital filmmaking). Instead, Lee illustrates that with the appropriate sensibility and aesthetic unity, such pure moments can be constructed traditionally (analogically), digitally, or with a perfect melding of the two. Hulk essentially embodies a new kind of cinematic connection that is both subtle and profound. The digital components are physically married to the composition and emotionally embedded in the narrative.
The above sequence is, in many ways, a microcosm of the movie itself. It speaks to how Hulk subverted a genre and subsequently failed at the box office. Structured though it may be as an origin story, the movie's treasures have tragically gone unrecognized by a film-going public that expected the conventional thrills of Spiderman, which, although fine in and of themselves, do not represent what Lee was after with this film. His Hulk is an introspective, even poetic treatise on rage, pain, and estrangement. If in the end it becomes a less interesting, more conventional action movie, that's likely due to the fact that it was an investment, one that Universal may not have made had they realized where Lee was actually taking the film.
Unfortunately, audiences didn't connect with it, and Hulk became the example of how not to make a successful comic book/action movie (mixing experimental introspection with more conventional genre elements). While the film is seen as a failure, there remain so many moments like the one I've described above—moments so sublime that they may be obscured or lost on those viewers with set expectations and criteria for evaluating genre films. The greatest tragedy is that the film defines itself in these moments. Hulk may not be representative of a perfectly smooth cinematic experience, but it is one of the few films outside of Steven Spielberg's early sci-fi output that cuts into the definitions and conceptions of high-effects filmmaking, and it re-appropriates big studio digital filmmaking as a site of potential artistry and advancement.
The film and its many subversive moments will always exist, no matter how much Universal Studios insists on pushing them from the short-lived memories of their consumers. Rather than simply allowing Lee's incarnation of the Hulk to dwindle in our minds, Universal Studios has actively sought to replace it with a more action-packed spectacle that they hope will be more to the audience's liking. This isn't a surprising move in light of Hulk's commercial failure, as studios have made similar maneuvers in the past (i.e. re-booting a franchise or remaking a classic). But this practice of re-starting, re-making, and re-imagining movies seems to be snowballing, and the turnaround between projects is becoming shorter.
Universal's hope seems to be that Hulk will disappear, which is fairly consistent with the shifts that digital culture has enabled. More and more, movies are becoming momentary flashes in our memories, soon to be re-shaped and re-calibrated. Of course, this seems to be happening with all studio movies, which are forgotten by the studios themselves a week after they are released. This is something of an economic parallel to digital effects work, where the synthetic is joined with the physical to often awkward effect. But Hulk is a fascinating commercial failure because it is essentially the perfect union of actual and imaginary, a marriage that digital culture in general seems designed to block.
While the sociocultural conditions for Hulk's reception are fascinating and certainly worthy of discussion, they are reflected in and preceded by elements internal to the film itself, specifically in how it manages photographic and digital elements within the same space. Although a majority of studio films attempt this, few of them succeed in constructing real cinematic moments in the process. Most of them exude a sense of digital manipulation and artificiality, no matter how real their effects may be. In Hulk, Lee is not merely interested in focusing on spectacle, but nor is he comfortable rejecting it. Instead he offers an articulated embrace of the sheer potential and uniqueness of digital cinema. One of these small, striking moments occurs immediately after Banner undergoes his first Hulk-out, when he finally sees his father (Nick Nolte) in the darkened doorway on the other side of the room. The camera zooms in and then backs out again to trail behind the Hulk as he moves his way through the downpour of water spraying from the overhead sprinkler system. The steady zoom of the composition is smooth, and we can see every variation of light, shadow, and moisture on his soaked arms. It's a throwaway moment, but a dazzling one.
The film is full of these kinds of moments, which manifest both in sustained compositions and in pluralized shots (those instants where the visuals on screen morph into multiple images, into several perspectives of the same event). Considering the amount of gimmickry inherent in this stylistic approach, Lee fills the screen space in creative ways, and does some fascinating things with the sense of movement from shot to shot. For example, when images morph into each other, it is oftentimes extremely difficult to determine where one shot begins and another ends. The film synthesizes disparate elements of various compositional perspectives and melds them into one fluid motion, juggling between extreme close-ups and digitized montages. Here, Lee articulates the difference and unity of digital vs. analog filmmaking. They converge smoothly, yet violently. He teases out that tension with a narrative that reflects the same themes of manipulation, determination, and a genetic inability to reconcile the past. The tension also manifests itself in the juxtaposition of a cartoonish comic-book absurdity and the deadly serious psychoanalytic plunge into the mind of Bruce Banner.
Some critics have argued the heavy contrasts in the narrative and visual design of the film are problematic, or that certain elements are over-stylized. But what is the difference between form and content, between analog and digital, anyway? Hulk collapses these divides and actively searches for that which constitutes the grey zone of these dichotomous bonds. Lee wears this inquiry on his sleeve, injecting it into the narrative and aesthetic structure of Hulk, to the extent that it doesn't always serve the film well. And while at times Hulk seems to stumble on its own invention, more often than not it organically finds its contrasts, and streamlines them around both its central character and themes.
None of this might have worked, however, had the film not successfully handled the more traditional aspects of filmmaking, namely performance and physical composition. These are essentially the base principles of cinema, especially in terms of bringing narrative content to life, and Lee's direction of these elements is masterful. While Josh Lucas' corporate villain character doesn't exactly groove with the film, there are a variety of other characters (and the actors playing them) who interact in unison. Connelly's Betty represents the maximum potential for a secondary love interest in this kind of fare, while the men—Bana and Sam Elliott's Gen. Ross—get to showcase their dramatic chops. Bana does not disappoint in the complex role of Bruce Banner, and Elliott practically takes over the movie as Betty's determined father, his fiery expressions and defined contours a perfect match for Lee's intensified close-ups. Nolte's father figure is not as successful, but nevertheless makes for some downright strange sequences. During his speechifying, Nolte finds an intuitive energy, dramatically shifting his tones from gentleness to psychopathic and back again.
On paper, the story of Hulk is very generic, with its psychoanalytic undertones and extended rummage through one character's troubled past (bringing to mind Hitchcock's deservedly minor work, Marnie). But the story is effective overall because of how smoothly Lee pulls all of the performances, themes, and digital components together around the underlying juxtaposition of conventional filmmaking tools and the synthetic elements that exist in relationship with them. The digital rendering of the Hulk is indeed the locus of the film's energy, but it also spreads to every movement of the piece, digital or not, whether following the Hulk up the Golden Gate bridge or simply staging a two person conversation.
Now with the new action-packed Incredible Hulk upon us, the challenge is incumbent upon filmmakers working within the studio system to find those pure digital moments that measure up to Lee's achievements. The film is at its best when it dares to show us details of his character rather than the technical wizardry that enabled him. That the Hulk routinely trips, fumbles around, and drops pieces of equipment that are simply too heavy for him is a stroke of brilliance on Lee's part. He's willing to show us every flaw of his digital creation, not in a technical sense, but in an aesthetic, even ideological one. Whether technologically or culturally, digital communication can evoke the fractures and disconnects of narratives and lived experiences. But it can also unify them in oddly fresh ways.
When the Hulk glides through the air in the Arizona desert, bouncing about the earth with weightless direction and unhinged freedom, it's almost like you can feel the rush of a new, fresh wind on your own face. That is the (digital) moment we are in, and Lee articulates it beautifully in a simple matter of images and movements. No matter how much Universal Studios may assert that the new Incredible Hulk is their definitive vision of the Marvel character, Lee's images speak for themselves, reminding in their aesthetic wonders that they cannot be displaced, but will live on autonomously—like the giant green man cutting gracefully through the sky—if only for a moment.
Ted Pigeon is author of the blog The Cinematic Art.