It's a strange Hollywood phenomenon that a film can open with $60 million (and go on to make over $250 million worldwide) and still be called a disappointment, but that's what happened to poor 'Hulk.' The big green guy was supposed to be the summer blockbuster of 2003 -- an exciting, action-filled comic book extravaganza, and Universal's answer to Warner's 'Batman' and Sony's 'Spider-Man' franchises. Then Ang Lee's $150-plus million adaptation came out, suffered acidic reviews and turned off audiences with its gloomy, doomy mood and lack of action. All it took was about three days for the Big Green Hope to morph into the Big Green Bummer.
Eric Bana stars as Bruce Banner, a research scientist who gives new meaning to the word "morose." Why is he so sad? Seems pop (Nick Nolte) is a bit of a mad doctor type, and used to experiment on the poor kid, exposing him to genetic mutant monster experiments. Bruce is also depressed because he still has the hots for his former girlfriend and fellow scientist, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). She is also, like, really sad -- if only because Connelly is even more beautiful when she pouts. Then, after 45 minutes of boring exposition, all hell breaks loose. Soon, just about everybody -- Nolte, Connelly, the government, CNN -- is out to capture the not-so-jolly green giant before he causes more carnage than Godzilla with PMS. Guess no one thought to slip ol' Hulk some Zoloft?
I kid, but only because I love. Okay, maybe not love. But really, 'Hulk' isn't that bad. It has a nice comic book look, the cast is mighty fine, and if Lee was perhaps not the perfect director for the material, at least he attempts to bring some gravity and weight to what could have been an absolutely silly disaster flick. Lee just neglected to include much action, and when he finally does give it to us, the film's climax is a letdown. Clearly, Universal was hoping for another 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' only Marvel-style. In that modern classic, Lee was able to craft an exciting, visually stunning adventure that was also emotional, weighty and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, 'Hulk' doesn't reach those same heights, nut it is also not the catastrophe many would have us believe. All the elements are in place for high drama -- or at least high comic melodrama -- and you'd be hard-pressed to find a Hollywood spectacle as good-looking as this one. Admittedly though, Lee's "panel pastiche" visual style, leaden pace and all-CGI Hulk action doesn't totally mesh.
Most of the criticism leveled against 'Hulk' stemmed from Lee's decision to make the monster an entirely digital creation -- sure, it worked for Gollum, but on the opposite side of the CGI spectrum, there are lesser successes like Jar-Jar. Lee's Hulk falls somewhere in between. We've come a long way from Lou Ferrigno in tights, but most of the CGI still looks pretty phony. It also doesn't help poor Bana, who must have found it hard to craft a three-dimensional portrayal when half of his performance was replaced with clip art. When the big green bugger finally does go bouncing across the screen, destroying tall buildings in a single bound, he seems to defy the laws of physics. Close-ups reveal a range and emotion that surmounts the digital trickery, but in long shots, Hulky rarely feels like a flesh-and-blood character -- instead he more resembles Sonic the Green Hedhog. And you know you've lost your suspension of disbelief in a Hulk movie when you start questioning why all of Banner's clothes rip off, except for that one strategically-placed pair of purple shorts. Shouldn't the Hulk be anatomically correct? Guess we'll have to wait for the Unrated Extended Director's Special Edition Cut for that one.
'Hulk' looks fantastic on HD DVD. I'm tempted to give it five stars for picture quality, despite the fact that I'm sure someone will email me, complaining that I missed that one dead pixel in frame 38,394. But fuck it, I will give it five stars -- 'Hulk' is truly one of the best catalog releases I've ever seen on either next-gen format.
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, every element of the presentation is demo quality. The source material is pristine, and apparently Universal has been keeping 'Hulk's HD master in some sort of Fort Knox vault on the studio lot. Blacks, contrast, colors -- perfect. Hues are wonderfully smooth and clean, but not over- or under-saturated. Depth, detail and sharpness are all wonderful -- this is the kind of thoroughly three-dimensional high-def transfer that I imagined all HD DVD titles would be like when I first heard of the format. Universal is also to be commended for a tip-top job on the encode, which suffers from no noticeable compression artifacts or intrusive edge enhancement. I just can't find a single thing to complain about with this presentation. Stand back, 'King Kong' and 'Batman Begins' -- you have a new challenger to the throne of HD DVD supremacy.
He lives! He breathes! He smashes things! That Hulk sure loves to throw temper tantrums of mass destruction, and it's all the more enjoyable in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1. Okay, so maybe it is not Dolby TrueHD, but 'Hulk' still sounds terrific thanks to a full 1.5mbps encode and the film's aggressive sound design.
An excellent, enveloping 360-degree soundfield is created almost constantly during the film. Discrete effects ping-pong all over the place, especially during the Hulk's third-act rampage. Imaging is as transparent as you're going to get on a lossy format, and clarity of tone in the rears excellent. Dynamics are top-notch, and low bass is incredibly deep and forceful. Even the fairly typical Danny Elfman score booms to life, with a vibrancy lacking in the standard resolution Dolby Digital track. Oddly, though, for such a dialogue-driven movie, the center channel is so pronounced it sometimes comes off as a bit too loud for the mix. Certainly though, that's better than speech being too quiet, and I never missed a word.
'Hulk' first hit standard-def DVD as a two-disc set, and at the time that release was rather cutting-edge in terms of extended-branching interactivity. Though Universal has carried over all of the video vignettes from that release, the now-archaic technology has now been dropped in favor of repackaging the supplements as straightforward menu items. That's better than not including them at all, of course, though it does make 'Hulk' on HD DVD a bit more of a generic experience.
In any case, I dug the screen-specific audio commentary with Ang Lee, even though a few more participants might have elevated the track. At 138 minutes, it is a bit of a tough slog for Lee solo, though his limited English is charming. It is also humorous that this is one of those commentaries that was recorded before the movie came out, so Lee is blissfully unaware of his expected blockbuster's fall from grace. For that reason, I can't help but imagine a new track might be somewhat more insightful. Still, I admired his dedication to creating a "thinking person's comic book," and as far as production anecdotes go, this one is chock full.
"The Making of 'Hulk'" runs 24 minutes, and is divided into four sections: "Cast and Crew," "Stunts & Physical Effects," "ILM" and "Music." A better-than-average EPK, it is clear all of these interviews were conducted during production and/or post-production, as everyone talks in the future tense about the film's release. Nothing is exceptionally memorable, though I did get a kick out of Marvel boss Stan Lee's intriguing hopes for 'Hulk' -- that it would bring "an indie sensibility with a major comic book movie." The ILM section is also particularly interesting, as Lee, effects guru Dennis Muren and the ILM team wanted to break barriers and create a CGI character you could "invest your emotions in" and that would finally blur the line between computer and reality. All involved with the movie seem to believe they succeeded ("he looks so real!" one effects guy exclaims). I would have to disagree.
Four more featurettes go into further depth on 'Hulk' legend and lore. "The Evolution of the Hulk" (16 minutes) is a great deal of fun, offering a quick overview of the history of the character and his trip from page to screen, with reflections from various Marvel animators including Stan Lee. "The Unique Style of Editing Hulk" (5 minutes) focuses on the film's audacious "comic book panel" approach, while "The Incredible Ang Lee" is a 13-minute kissy-poo fest. Most informative is "The Dog Fight Scene" (10 minutes), which breaks down the said sequence, from pitch meeting through conceptualization to production and completing the effects.
Next we have "Hulk-Cam: Inside the Rage," which are a series of vignettes that were previously only accessible via extended branching on the standard-def DVD. All are one- to two-minute snippets on various aspects of the film -- the cast, the effects, the CGI, etc. We also get a few interview outtakes. Nothing truly substantial, and their vignette-y nature gets old real quick.
Finally, six Deleted Scenes are presented as an eight-minute montage. The quality is decent, with the footage presented in windowboxed 1.85:1 480i video only. As for the scenes themselves, they are forgettable, except for a quick cameo by original "Incredible Hulk" star Lou Ferrigno as a security guard. Nice touch.
Sorry, no theatrical trailers or other promo materials on this one. But that is no surprise, given that it's a Universal title.
'Hulk' was a box office disappointment, but the film is nowhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. No, it doesn't totally work, but I appreciated Ang Lee's respect for the material and the fine cast, especially Eric Bana as the tortured Bruce Banner. There is little question about this HD DVD release -- the transfer and soundtrack are first-rate, and there are plenty of (standard-def) extras to keep fans happy. Only a lack of exclusive high-def supplements keep this from being at the forefront of HD DVD releases. But never mind that -- if you are at all interested in the film, 'Hulk' is highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.