When you think about it, it’s really George Lucas’s fault. Seemingly ever since the beginning of ILM, his vision has been for computers to do everything. They broke a ton of ground with Jurassic Park, but it seems like the technology has actually devolved since then. These days (ever since Lucas took the big plunge with the ill-fated Episode I), it feels like every movie has major characters who are completely computer animated. Someday, if Lucas has his way, we probably won’t need actors anymore. Except that we will, and The Incredible Hulk is an excellent example of why that will be the case for a long time.
The story is decent enough. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is hiding out in Brazil, trying to live his life without any “episodes” occurring. He’s been doing a pretty decent job at it, working in a soda bottling plant and practicing some sort of yoga or meditation or deep breathing something-or-other that helps him control his temper. When a small accident involves a drop of his gama-tainted blood ending up in a soda bottle, though, which is consumed by an American (Stan Lee in his compulsory cameo appearance) who has an undisclosed reaction to it, the US government (and, particularly, William Hurt as General Ross) is tipped off to Banner’s location. Ross enlists the help of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), one of those over-the-top super-trained military guys with an oddly discordant background (in this case, he’s Russian-born and English-trained–or is it the other way around?). Together they come hunting for Banner, who hulks out, and then proceeds to do what the Hulk is always found doing: beating up the bad guys and then running away to hide. This first encounter is handled quite well, with the Hulk only being partially revealed and then only in glimpses as he briefly emerges from the shadows. It gives the character a mystique to him, and avoids giving away everything about him in the exposition.
Eventually Banner makes his way to the US, where he looks up his former lover Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, in her second–and better–of two big roles this summer). At the college campus where Betty is a researcher (and where Bruce formerly worked with her), General Ross and Blonsky catch up again, and this time a larger battle ensues. This is where the movie starts to falter, as the Hulk is now seen in all of his ridiculousness as they battle out in the open. In case I’m being unclear: this Hulk (rendered by Rhythm and Hues) does not look good. It is a poorly-animated, cheesy-looking beast that has no chance of functioning as an interesting or sympathetic character, nevermind maintaining the suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t even seem like much effort went into it; in the Ang Lee Hulk, at least the creature (although also ridiculously fake-looking) shared facial features with Eric Bana. No such effort has been made here. In fact, the contrast between Edward Norton, whose acting is as top-notch as always and who appears strong in his self-control and resolution, and the pixelated Hulk, who is sloppy and downright goofy in his visage and movements, is striking in all of the wrong ways.
It is obvious that those behind this film are fans of the Hulk character and its legacy, from musical cues that call back to the television series to a cameo appearance by Lou Ferrigno himself (who also supplies the Hulk character with its voice). It’s sad, then, that they completely miss the whole point of the character by portraying it as a soulless, unsympathetic piece of animation. This is most clear when the Hulk and Betty escape once again and attempt to share a tender moment while hiding out in a cave. It’s almost comical when they are seen standing next to each other, and just plain silly when Liv Tyler cozies up to the cartoon for a nap. As Ronnie B commented after seeing this movie, it’s no more touching than seeing Bugs Bunny play basketball with Michael Jordan in Space Jam.
After this second encounter, during which the Hulk seriously injured an overly-brave Blonsky, the soldier becomes obsessed with gaining the Hulk’s power for himself. He follows Banner and Betty to the research facilities of Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson), who has been working on a cure for Banner’s condition. Needless to say, it involves manipulating the very gamma radiation that turned Banner into the Hulk in the first place, and so Mr. Blue also happens to possess the ability of turning Blonsky into an evil Hulk, which Blonsky forces him to do. This quickly leads to a Good Hulk-vs.-Bad Hulk showdown, which once again is really hard to care about as it’s just sloppy animation flying around as a city crumbles and catches fire around them.
Perhaps the best part of the film, after the superb performances by both Norton and Tyler, is the epilogue featuring Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., in his role from Iron Man) meeting with General Ross. This sets up an Avengers movie, which has the potential to be pretty interesting, especially if it’s going to feature the superiorly-handled Iron Man character prominently. And who knows, maybe CG technology will have advanced a bit more by the time that film is in post-production, although I have serious doubts that it’ll do so sufficiently to change my current opinion of its overuse.