Hulk B-a-a-a-a-d

Ang Lee’s green monster never comes to life.

Well before The Hulk (Universal) was screened for the press, I heard the computer-generated title character described as “Shrek on steroids,” and I only wish he were so lifelike. In the Marvel Comic, the old cartoon, and the ‘70s TV series, the Hulk was of more or less human dimensions, but now Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) swells to the size of a house, his trousers magically reshaping themselves into underpants to conceal his presumably hulk-sized family jewels. He has a broad, squared-off face with iridescent lime-green skin, and he swivels from the waist like an old rock-’em-sock-’em robot toy. He also bounces around like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh—although he doesn’t go boing! when he lands, he goes KABOOM!!!, and the camera (and the theater) shakes. The Hulk’s visage in the throes of rage was reportedly modeled on the expressions of the director, Ang Lee (the studio has circulated footage of Lee making angry faces while assorted high-speed cameras converted his grimaces and snarls into sundry ones and zeros), but the creature’s quizzical eye rolls are hardly more credible than those of Willis H. O’Brien’s stop-motion ape in the original King Kong (1933). The difference, of course, is that Kong had charm.

That’s not to say that Hulk—or the $150 million blockbuster built around him—isn’t a fascinating piece of work. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. As the heroine of Ghost World (2001) might put it, it’s often so bad it’s almost good, but then it’s so bad it goes past good and back to bad again. It’s certainly serious—deadly serious. Little could I have predicted when, as a boy, I pored over the fun comic or watched the cartoon show that one day art-film eggheads like Lee and his longtime producer/writer James Schamus would bring their vaunted intellects to the project … and come up with something akin to a Sam Shepard rewrite of an old Japanese giant monster picture.

Shepard turned to Aeschylus when he sat down to write his first dramas, and it appears that Lee and Schamus (who wrote the script with John Turman and Michael France) are aiming for something similarly mythic—a sins-of-the-father story with overtones of Frankenstein (which was subtitled The Modern Prometheus). It’s strange that they had to reach so far afield, since of all the Marvel characters, The Incredible Hulk has the most direct connection to human experience. It’s about a scientist, Bruce Banner, who is “belted by gamma rays” (as the cartoon theme song puts it) and can no longer “integrate” his anger. We’ve all met people like that: the excessively amiable ones who once every couple of years are moved to throw chairs through windows and maybe need Thorazine to come down. Whenever Banner gets mad, he turns into a muscle-bound green marauder; then he shrinks back to normal size and feels guilty and ashamed for having popped off.

This new Hulk is no longer just an anger-management tale. In the Lee-Schamus retelling, Banner has a mutant DNA, which was passed down by a mad scientist dad who experimented on himself when the Army churlishly wouldn’t let him use human subjects. There are secondary villains—mainly Josh Lucas as a sneering young scientist for Atheon, a military-industrial corporation that would like to create an army of Hulks. But Banner’s chief antagonist turns out to be his own unhinged dad (Nick Nolte), who wants to team up with his son to rule the rule the world or, failing that, to harvest his son’s power for himself. The gamma rays are nothing beside the daddy rays.

Battling against Dad (and Dad’s legacy) could be a great theme for a monster picture, but the writers have built in too many Freudian wheels and pulleys to give the film a more conventional structure. (It also helps the film approach two-and-a-half hours.) Bruce’s scientist ex-girlfriend, Betty (Jennifer Connelly), thinks there’s more going on than just anger triggering his new “nanomeds.” His problem, she says, is repressed memories—especially ones that have something vaguely to do with his dad, his dead mom, and a butcher knife. What could it be that Bruce can’t remember? She points out that physical trauma can heal, but emotions go on and on. She pushes him to confront his past, while he mulishly shakes his head and says it’s no use, he doesn’t have a clue …

And he doesn’t, which is too bad. I know he’s supposed to be a locked-in guy: If he could get stuff off his chest he wouldn’t need to turn into the Hulk and knock down buildings. But he’s locked-in in deeply inexpressive ways. Bana looks like Griffin Dunne crossed with Bill Murray, and he’s puny, private, and faintly peevish. When he describes his Hulk experience as both horrifying and liberating, he doesn’t seem especially horrified or liberated. And when he does get to the bottom of his repressed memories, the knowledge doesn’t change him. As an action hero, he’s a real lox.

Lee overcompensates for the central vacuum by giving the film a speed-freak syntax that shows the influence of the TV series 24—a show that can make you sick with suspense. So, in The Hulk you get nonstop fancy-pants split screens (straight, jagged, diagonal), boxes within boxes, and punchy zoom-backs from things like frogs’ eyes. The intent is to simulate the page of a comic book, but comic artists strive to pack the maximum amount of visual and kinetic information into a single frame, whereas Lee’s work is just busy-ness for its own sake. When Bruce starts to change into the Hulk, you get montages of reptiles and jellyfish and H-bombs going off—and Lee might as well have thrown in rocket launches, shark attacks, Britney Spears posters, and Ronald Reagan pitching Winstons.

In the old TV series, with Bill Bixby as the earnest protagonist and Lou Ferrigno as his overcaffeinated-seasick-bodybuilder alter ego, the writers made sure that Banner got mad at the right people (i.e., the bad guys), which reinforced the vigilante aspect of the original: Bruce didn’t want to turn into the Hulk, but when he did justice was somehow always done. And no one ever seemed to die. That hasn’t changed much: In the movie, Hulk knocks helicopters out of the sky, but they go harmlessly crunching against the ground. The air of unreality is hard to shake off. When Hulk starts flinging around tanks and punching out helicopters, the film resembles a lot of anonymous Japanese giant-monster pictures from the ‘60s—especially the one that in the United States was called Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), which featured a boy getting zapped by radiation and turning into a long-haired green giant. The Hulk and Betty are supposed to have a King Kong/Beauty and the Beast sort of bond, with maybe a touch of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986). And it’s meant to be a great visual moment when she sees Bruce in his new form for the first time, blending in with the thick green tendrils outside her cabin in a redwood forest. But the vines look just as unreal as the Hulk does, and the spell is irretrievably broken when she says, “Bruce?” This would not be the first word out of most people’s mouths when presented with a semi-naked green giant.

Ludicrous as it is, The Hulk isn’t detestable: It’s trying too hard. And no monster movie has ever had a villain like Nolte’s David Banner. Colin Clive from Frankenstein (1931) would regard him as unhinged. Twitchy and bedraggled, the actor resembles his notorious DUI mug shot. In the climax, he rails at his shackled son against a deep black backdrop, and we could be in San Francisco’s Magic Theater with Sam Shepard standing in the wings. Unlike your average comic-book blockbuster, The Hulk isn’t a bad cartoon. It’s a bad modern Greek tragedy. It’s a swing at the moon that looks (and smells) like green cheese.