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The Hulk

spoilers? the filmmakers have ruined it for you already; what more can I do?

As you may be aware, I was advised against going to see The Hulk. (I laugh in the face of advice like this; my iron stomach for terrible, terrible movies is notorious among my friends. I actually paid to see Practical Magic. I bring almost as much shame to the concept of "film school" as the USC film school does.) I was advised correctly.

Before it got completely bad, we were treated to a trailer for Seabiscuit. This is quite possibly my favorite movie title of all time, because even back in the eighth grade it was fun to holler at people in history class. ("SsssssssssEEEEEEEEEbiskit!") Also, Jeff Bridges is dressed up like Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker in Tucker: A Man and His Dream which is one of my favorite Jeff Bridges roles. Beyond that, I can't say if this will be a movie I need to see, or one like The Legend of Bagger Vance that's just a little too dramatic to captivate me. But the trailer did feature this exchange, between Tobey Maguire and another jockey when sitting in the starting gate before a race:

Guy (looking at Seabiscuit): Kinda small isn't he?

Tobey Maguire: Gonna look a lot smaller in a second.

I really love a good perspective joke.

Four weeks later, the movie started. (We were at an AMC theatre, and AMC's policy is to stuff as much onto the screen before the movie as possible. I think we saw the same ad for GMC trucks twice!) I had read a great deal about some of the unconventional choices that director Ang Lee had made with The Hulk. I was intrigued because of his attempt to infuse the superhero popcorn movie with an intellectual side. I also liked what I read about his use of a split-screen effect to simulate the multi-paneled look of a comic book page.

Well, yes. I did look like a comic book. But it looked like a comic book where someone ruffled the first thirty pages past you in about ten seconds and then tied your arms behind your back so you had to turn the next hundred very slowly with your toes. Clearly the attempt to infuse a little filmmaking into the summer blockbuster ran away with the film. Which put way too much time between the last trailer and the first glimpse of Hulk. So, the beginning of the movie was chopped into a dense expositional paste, so convoluted that it basically assumed that you already knew the information. Anybody new to the Hulk story would certainly have been left behind. (The seven-year-old girl in the Minnie Mouse outfit sitting beside us definitely wasn't following; don't get me started on the practice of bringing toddlers to inappropriate movies to save on babysitting.)

Then, once Hulk is out, the film slows to its original four-hour crawl. It's another in the string of recent movies where the filmmakers have a handful of nifty ideas (or at least ideas they like) and no real thread to connect them. So, Hulk just randomly engages in some different angry things, fuming against his dad (Nick Nolte) and a rambunctious, oversized Hulk Poodle, and the military machine that wants to turn him into a weapon. The split-screen effect is interesting, but it gets overused to the point of confusing the story. It feels appropriate in the opening sequence because everything is going way too fast anyway but, as nice as the idea is, it doesn't belong in the rest of the film.

(It tries to pack in way too much backstory, but I still like the opening sequence for one reason. It features gel electrophoresis. This is the practice of separating strands of DNA from one another in a sample by arraying them across a conductive gel material using an electric current. We practiced it in AP Bio in the 12th grade and it was pretty cool. Its incorporation in the Hulk opening sequence marks the most enthusiasm I've seen over gel electrophoresis since about four years ago when – just for fun – I looked up gelelectrophoresis.com and it turned out it actually existed! This was back in the Internet heyday when every domain was registered. I think there was an internetheyday.com. Anyway, Dow Corning or someone had it then, although that's over now. And on the homepage was a stock-art photograph of two very excited twenty-something girls who were dressed as though they were going to the mall. The whole thing seemed to scream "Hey! Gel electrophoresis rocks!" I found it hard to disagree.)

And speaking of the opening sequence, I'm hugely frustrated by the way superhero genesis stories are being updated for the biotech age. In the atomic age, everything was radiation-charged mutation, which was hard enough to buy. Nowadays, movies expect us to believe that a person's DNA can be changed with the addition of some other DNA. Certainly if you plunked some human cells in a dish and bathed them in the right enzymes, you could probably get their DNA to merge with nearby strands of non-human DNA if it were very nearly similar. But there's no way that such a thing could happen over every cell in someone's body, which is what you'd have to have for whole new physiological traits to emerge, not to mention the idea of those traits to be passed to a person's son, like in the opening to The Hulk. (My friend Joe would make an excellent point here. "If that's the one thing you didn't believe about The Hulk..." And he'd be right. But it still bugs me.) They did something very similar in Spider-Man. It represents a laughably Lamarckian viewpoint on heredity and the role of DNA.

This is by far the least pressing reason to dislike The Hulk, but it bothered me a lot and I don't think we need more people saying "poorly constructed script" or "one-dimensional characters peppered among non-dimensional characters." The movie was just one big disappointment, and that's a shame because as I've said, I thought it was a chance to validate the choice to put a serious director at the helm of a summer superhero movie. I guess Sam Raimi will just have to shoulder the burden of that on his own.

The other key disappointment is Jennifer Connelly. Not that she's bad; she's great. But her being great makes it impossible to completely dismiss the film, which is really what it deserves. Amid all the hyped buffoonery and lackluster storytelling that makes up The Hulk, she positively radiates. I thought she was remarkable in her Acadamy-AwardŽ winning performance in A Beautiful Mind, but that was supposed to be a serious movie (and a lot of the credit for her scene-stealing goes to the makeup and wardrobe people). Here, she's playing against unwatchable nonsense most of the time, and she's still holding her own. Granted, when she's doing the exposition, she can be a bit stiff. But when she's playing the emotional scenes, she cuts through me and speaks directly to my heart. There were moments of her performance that I was near tears, and not the tears of boredom that many of the "action" sequences elicited either. To me, that speaks to the power of a performer's craft: She applied such a truthful emotional core to her character that you really felt what she was feeling.

So, The Hulk is emblematic of today's chief problem in Hollywood: Short-sighted thinking. Marvel finally got Spider-Man off the ground after years of development, so now they're raiding their arsenal of properties all at once, rather than continuing to spend time finding the right approach. And also leaving the store empty five years from now when Hellboy and Punisher and Daredevil II have come out and there's nothing left to sell. In a way, it's a shame. In a way, maybe it guarantees a better summer six years from now.

Lamarck came just before Darwin and believed that the way evolution worked was that a species wanted a certain characteristic and so they got it. Then, once they had it, they could pass it down to their offspring. It goes against what we know about heredity and how genes are expressed. Something has to be in your DNA when you're formed for it to express itself in your morphology. It doesn't work the other way around. If you get breast implants, your daughter will not be genetically pre-dispositioned to have larger breasts. Darwin: Leaves on the lower branches of trees were in short supply because all of the animals could reach them and eat them. Over generations of natural selection, the giraffes with longer necks had an advantage and were healthier and lived longer and produced more offspring. Today, giraffes have long necks. Lamarck: The giraffes' ancestors wanted the higher leaves, so they stretched their necks as hard as they could to reach them, and as a result their necks got slightly longer. Their offspring were born with these necks and they spent their lives stretching so their offspring had even longer necks, and so on. See how silly?